In 1998, Aaron Eckhart broke onto the scene hard with a role in playwright Neil Labute's directorial debut, In the Company of Men. Eckhart's character, a sociopathic, backstabbing, son of a bitch known only as "Chad," was one of the best villains of the past twenty years--a smiling liar capable of romancing a deaf office worker, and in the exact same tone, mocking her voice in the very next scene. It was a scene-stealing, stand-up-and-take-notice role.
A star is born, right? Not so fast. For some reason, in LaBute's follow-up film, Your Friends and Neighbors, Eckhart didn't get to reprise the role of the sleek predator--instead, he was cast as the onanistic, overweight sap in a larger ensemble piece. While the abrupt shift in character type showed that Eckhart had range, it pretty much doomed the film. With Jason Patric doing a far more typical rendition of the bad guy role, Your Friends... didn't have any charisma to counterbalance the ugliness of LaBute's characters and script. From there he went on to a series of well-received supporting roles, before earning lead roles in flops such as Possession, The Core, and Suspect Zero.
So now, after more than seven years spent trying to break through (again) Eckhart has finally found a vehicle worthy of his talents--as the lead in Thank You for Smoking, director Jason Reitman's adaptation of Christopher Buckley's satirical novel. In the movie, Eckhart is Nick Naylor, mouthpiece for the Tobacco industry. Nick's a bit like what you suspect Chad would be, if he had a soul. Like Chad, Nick is armed with limitless self-confidence and not so much of a conscience. However, Nick isn't malicious--even though he proudly points out to his alcohol and firearms lobbyist friends that his product has the highest death toll--he's just a guy who likes to argue, and influence people, and get paid for it.
In the movie, we follow Nick as he runs errands for Big Tobacco--appearing on talk shows, delivering bribes, and jousting with a Vermont Senator (William H. Macy) who wants all cigarette packs labeled "poison" with a skull and crossbones--while balancing his time as a divorced dad with a young son (Cameron Bright).
Reitman keeps the pace brisk, relentlessly cutting from scene to scene rather than allowing a joke or situation to run past the point where it's humorous. The result is a comedy with relatively few big laughs, but a constant stream of smaller ones. While this approach leaves some of the scenes feeling like they never reached their full comedic potential, the most common crime in 21st century comedies is the tendency to beat any functional gag to death--tune into Saturday Night Live any given weekend if you want to see examples.
Eckhart's supporting cast is excellent, particularly Rob Lowe as an Ovitz-like Hollywood agent, and Maria Bello and David Koechner as Nick's fellow "merchants of death." Bright does a nice, if creepy job as the apple that hasn't fallen far from the tree, but Tom Cruise's baby-momma (Katie Holmes) is a bit over her head as a supposed sexpot reporter.
But really, Thank You for Smoking is Eckhart's show, and he makes the film worth watching. In the hands of many actors, including most of today's leading men, Nick would be a one-dimensional cartoon character, over-played for laughs. Eckhart makes Nick human, without ever letting the story fall into the pit of sentimentality. I heartily recommend the movie.