Smokin’ good film 

‘Thank You For Smoking’ full of laughs and smarts; ‘Scary Movie 4’ shows clever side.

HOT: Aaron Eckhart.
  • HOT: Aaron Eckhart.

If most Americans were asked to choose a list of hot-button issues these days, it’s fair to say a bunch of them would probably list smoking. It’s become something of a battleground over the past few years, with the folks who hate it intent on crushing it out and the folks who love a drag off a coffin nail feeling increasingly backed into a corner by new regulations and restrictions on their addiction.

It is, therefore, the perfect time for a movie like “Thank You For Smoking.” A sharp and dead-on satire, one that skewers both sides of the smoking debate with equal fervor, it’s a funny, funny film. Even better, it’s smart, a movie that will make you think about the deeper issues, such as the definition of “immoral” in the corporate world, which seems to have jettisoned every ounce of morality in search of bigger profits.

The pitch-perfect Aaron Eckhart plays Nick Naylor, one of the tobacco industry’s big-time spinmeisters. He is an artist, the guy who gets called in to represent the cigarette industry on panel discussions opposite teens with cancer and their grief-stricken mothers, and ends up shaking their hands.

Happily amoral, Naylor is a member of an unnofficial club called the “Merchants of Death,” a group of lobbyists who represent guns, tobacco and alcohol. He comes up with an idea to bribe producers and directors to get cigarettes back into the movies (which leads him to a suitably slimy Hollywood agent played by Rob Lowe, who suggests a sci-fi epic that will mark the first appearance of cigarettes in space).

Naylor soon moves up to the big leagues, summoned by the aging tobacco baron (Robert Duvall) and asked to spearhead a new campaign, all while juggling his role as father to a morally emerging son (Cameron Bright), sparring with a politically ambitious, anti-tobacco senator (William H. Macy), and trying to spark a relationship with a female reporter (Katie Holmes) who might or might not just be trying to work him for information.

Eckhart is terrific, in the kind of role that might save a pretty boy like him from character-actor hell. He is just likeable enough to shake the sheen off what would have been a very oily role in the hands of a lesser actor, playing Naylor with a genuine glee and selling the audience on the idea that — even if he doesn’t like what he has become — Naylor loves his work. He is helped along by the stellar cast — including a great turn by Sam Elliott as a once-iconic Marlboro Man type who has lung cancer and is now blackmailing Big Tobacco with the information. Not so good is Katie Holmes, who — despite her Tom Cruise-fueled megaboost into grownup movies of late — still can’t quite pull off any role that has her legally purchasing a glass of wine.

“Thank You For Smoking” brings a much-needed bit of humor to a deadly serious subject — just what’s needed in the debate right now.

Going for four

Let’s just play it as it lays: Any movie that makes it into a fourth incarnation can’t be that good. Think of the ones that have. Mostly, they’re just sad, saggy retreads of a pretty good original, pale suckers feeding off the primary root in the name of a little more cash (“Lethal Weapon 4” comes to mind).

Being such a fan of the mindless goofball humor to be found in the spoof movie genre, however, I’m willing to give “Scary Movie 4” a passing grade. Sure, it’s cockeyed, wonky, and produces more groans than a pie-eating contest, but it’s also pretty good fun for those willing to give themselves over to the stupidity of it all. Clever is the most it can muster, but in the case of mental cotton candy like this, that’s probably enough.

As in the previous turns in the “Scary Movie” series, SM4 is a conglomeration of spoofed scenes from big-budget movies: “War of the Worlds,” “The Village” “Brokeback Mountain,” “Million Dollar Baby” and others. Anyone who has seen those films knows how hard it would be to cut their plots together into a cohesive whole, but somehow “SM4” pretty much does it. It takes a lot of crazy glue, but it holds.

Anna Faris returns from SM3 as the dumb-as-a-post Cindy Campbell. Cindy takes a job as a caretaker to a mute old woman in a house that might be cursed (as in: “The Grudge”). Haunted by visions of a screaming little boy, Cindy finds a friend in her next-door neighbor, Tom Ryan (Craig Bierko), a divorced father who is spending the weekend with his two kids, with Cindy periodically flashing back to her previous and disastrous career as a female boxer. Soon after Tom and Cindy meet, with Cindy still trying to beat the ghouls in her house, giant robots rise out of the ground (as in “War of the Worlds”) and Tom takes on the Tom Cruise role, fighting off the alien invaders and helping save the world. Sandwiched in between are a number of well-done and well-spoofed scenes, featuring cameos by Dr. Phil McGraw, Shaquille O’Neal, James Earl Jones, Chris Elliott and Dave Attell.

“Scary Movie 4” isn’t for everyone (it’s especially not for those who haven’t seen the films being spoofed), it is a good time for those of the right mindset — which is to say: 18-to-30-year-old males who think a character saying “I’m just trying to grab some nuts” and then fishing a can of cashews out of his pants is funny. Charlie Chaplin, it ain’t. But if you’re looking for some mindless humor, this might be your stop. 



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