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Take Oasis, Karl Hungus Bathing.

“‘In the movie, they play it like it’s a drama,’ said Forkan…’There’s no mugging for the camera. Everything has this level of seriousness. In the “Oath of the Horatii” they’re talking about the future of Rome. In the film they’re talking about a rug that got peed on, but they’re as serious about that as the characters in the painting were. I liked that level of drama in these images that were also loaded with humor.’

Hey, I know that guy – he’s a nihilist. From the Twitter archives, artist Joe Forkan discusses his Lebowski cycle with the LA Times. (A gallery is available here.)

Stripped Bear.

“If you was to crack it open, you’d find no living thing in there. No animal nor insect at any rate. There’s a clockwork running in there, and pinned to the spring of it, there’s a bad spirit with a spell through its heart.” So the mentorly Gyptian scholar Farder Coram (Tom Courtenay) tells young Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards) of a robotic wasp that’s tracked her down, at the behest of the villainous Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman). Alas, the same could be said of Chris Weitz’s disappointing version of Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass. The film looks nice enough, but it’s ultimately a plodding and mechanical take on Pullman’s fantasy, one missing its own inner daemon, if you will. And the mischievous, anarchic spirit that drives Pullman’s story has been so thoroughly confined in Hollywood drek and by-the-(Box-Office)-numbers banality that it barely resonates at all.

I was rooting for Weitz here: I quite enjoyed About a Boy and In Good Company (which he produced), and thought his leaving the film for awhile suggested he was aware of the epic scope the project required. And, while Pullman can be a stunningly self-inflated and ungracious sort, I thought the first book of His Dark Materials, before the trilogy bogged down in its own self-importance and anti-religious fervor, was a particularly good fantasy yarn. Alas, the movie as presented — I get the sense we may see another cut of it someday — does Pullman and Compass a severe disservice. All the subversiveness has been drained away from the story, and what we’re left with is virtually indistiguishable from any other B-level Rings clone. It’ll probably just be remembered the one with the polar bears.

Compass establishes its debt to Peter Jackson’s Rings films early — Like The Fellowship of the Ring, Compass begins with a “world as we know it” establishing prologue, setting up the conceits, the McGuffin, the good guys and bad guys, before keying in on one happy-go-lucky youngster who’s the focus of our story. The child in question is one Lyra Belacqua (Richards, good with what she’s given, and she avoids the cute-kid trap very well), an orphan living at Jordan College (i.e. the alternate-dimension version of Oxford). Lyra spends her days frolicing with the town children and getting into trouble with her daemon Pantalamion (Freddy Highmore) — In this world, you see, every person has their own animal-spirit companion which reflects their nature, following them around, sharing their pleasure and pain, and offering advice and conversation as needed. (This is quite different from our world, where my animal companion spends his days chasing his tail, barking at evil, and passing out on the couch.)

But Lyra’s world is about to come undone: Her free-thinking uncle, Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig, also quite good given the circumstances), has upset the ruling order of the Magisterium (Think the Vatican, except with Simon McBurney, Derek Jacobi, and Christopher Lee in tow) by arguing not only that parallel worlds exist, but that they might be accessible through the omnipresent interstellar medium known as Dust. And, when Asriel — now that the whole world looks Dusted — decides to continue his research in the polar North, Lyra herself gets caught up in the great events, particularly after an undercover agent of the Magisterium, one Mrs. Coulter (Kidman, seeming somewhat lost — she was better in Margot last week), takes a shine to her, and it is determined Lyra can read an ancient and powerful device known as an alethiometer, which invariably speaks truth to power. Is Lyra that child, the one prophesied to come by the witches of the North? Well, definitely maybe…

There are some elements of The Golden Compass that work rather well. As I said, Richards is an appealing presence, and it’s hard to imagine a better Lyra than her. Daniel Craig and especially Sam Elliot, as the aeronaut-cowboy Lee Scoresby, breathe much-needed life into the story in their brief moments onscreen. The daemons are for the most part cleverly handled, with particular plaudits for Mrs. Coulter’s vicious golden monkey (It really seems like it leapt off the page.) And most of the polar bear sequences, featuring Ian McKellen as the deposed bear-king Iorek Byrnison and Ian McShane as the evil usurper of the throne, Ragnar Sturlusson, are as good as one could hope for.

But McKellen’s inherently Gandalfian qualities further cement a comparison which doesn’t work in Compass‘s favor. If anything, Weitz’s film proves how important composer Howard Shore (like production designer Alan Lee) was to the success of the Rings trilogy. In Compass, as in Rings, characters are prone to describe places they’ve arrived at with a burst of description and a musical flourish. (“Svalbard, kingdom of the ice bears!“) But Alexandre Desplat’s score is so leaden and overbearing that it makes these bouts of exposition seem like, well, exposition. As a result, there’s much less magic in Compass than there should be — Like Chris Columbus’ first two installments of the Harry Potter series, Weitz’s film at best feels like a book on tape.

Or does it? Daemons and polar bears aside, the thing that made Compass an interesting read was Pullman’s subversive intent. In fact, I’ll admit to being more than a little curious as to how the heck The Subtle Knife and especially The Amber Spyglass, with its overtly Miltonic war against “the Authority” (i.e. God), was ever going to translate into a Christmas blockbuster. The answer the studio suits came up with, it seems, was to disembowel the film almost completely. Perhaps, given his haughty disdain for other authors’ fantasy works, Pullman even deserved to see his Golden Compass turned into an eviscerated Disney ride — Polar bears without the Coke. But fans of the book sure didn’t. Somewhere, somehow, somebody at New Line clearly decided that Compass needed to be more upbeat if it was going to make any money.

As a result, the ending of the movie, which cuts off a few chapters early (despite scenes of the Northern Lights in the trailer), was such a flagrant sucker-punch to the audience that I left completely disgusted with the film. If you’d never read The Golden Compass, you’d be hard-pressed to follow what’s going on anyway, or to give the overarching story the benefit of the doubt when it’s so often drowning in exposition. If you have read The Golden Compass, then you know how it ends, or will remember as it goes along, and don’t expect to see anything different. But, no, in keeping with its resolute ambition throughout not to offend anyone, Compass is (currently) given a syrupy, platitudinous ending before Lyra et al reach the Crack in the World. It’d be as if the Coens transformed the end of No Country for Old Men, or Joe Wright his new version of Ian McEwan’s Atonement, just to make it feel more upbeat and “viewer-friendly” and thus improve the box office. (In fact, if anything, it reminded me of the disrepect George Sluizer showed his audience with the feel-good American version of The Vanishing, which recently came up over at THND.) I was on the fence, leaning negative, about The Golden Compass up to that point. But those closing moments encapsulate most of what’s wrong with this saccharine adaptation. Say what you will about Philip Pullman — He’s definitely more fun with claws.

The Polar Express.

A brand new trailer for The Golden Compass materializes online, and apparently Christopher Lee (Magisterium Big Bad), Freddie Highmore (voice of Pantalamion), and Ian McKellen (voice of Iorek) have all signed up for duty in Chris Weitz’s film. They join Dakota Blue Richards, Daniel Craig, Nicole Kidman, Eva Green, and Sam Elliot (the latter as Lee Scoresby, but reeking of The Big Lebowski.)

Compass Golden?

Even more Comic-Con riches: A new, extended, walk-you-through-the-plot trailer for The Golden Compass is now online, and it looks…well, to be honest, it looks pretty darn good! Big ups to the art direction and casting people — Iorek (the polar bear), the daemons (particularly Miss Coulter’s twisted golden monkey), and the main players (Lyra, Lord Asriel, Mrs. Coulter, Lee Scoresby) all look note-perfect.

Lyra, daemons, and bears, oh my!

Another big fantasy trailer comes in the wake of Harry: New Line plays the LotR card to help sell audiences on the new teaser for Chris Weitz’s take on Phillip Pullman’s The Golden Compass. Well, the actors and the polar bears look pretty good…I’d like to see more of the daemons.

2006 (Finally) in Film.

Well, there are still a number of flicks I haven’t yet seen — David Lynch’s Inland Empire, for example, which I hope to hit up this weekend. But as the Oscar nods were announced today, and as the few remaining forlorn Christmas trees are finally being picked up off the sidewalk, now seems the last appropriate time to crank out my much belated end-of-2006 film list (originally put off to give me time to make up for my New Zealand sojourn.) To be honest, I might’ve written this list a few weeks earlier, had it not happened that I ended up seeing the best film of 2005 in mid-January of last year, thus rendering the 2005 list almost immediately obsolescent. But, we’ll get to that — As it stands, 2006 was a decent year in movies (in fact a better year in film than it was in life, the midterms notwithstanding), with a crop of memorable genre flicks and a few surprisingly worthy comebacks. And, for what it’s worth, I thought the best film released in 2006 was…

Top 20 Films of 2006


1. United 93: A movie I originally had no interest in seeing, Paul Greengrass’s harrowing docudrama of the fourth flight on September 11 captured the visceral shock of that dark day without once veering into exploitation or sentimentality (the latter the curse of Oliver Stone’s much inferior World Trade Center.) While 9/11 films of the future might offer more perspective on the origins and politics of those horrible hours, it’s hard to imagine a more gripping or humane film emerging anytime soon about the day’s immediate events. A tragic triumph, United 93 is an unforgettable piece of filmmaking.

[1.] The New World (2005): A movie which seemed to divide audiences strongly, Terence Malick’s The New World was, to my mind, a masterpiece. I found it transporting in ways films seldom are these days, and Jamestown a much richer canvas for Malick’s unique gifts than, say, Guadalcanal. As the director’s best reimagining yet of the fall of Eden, The New World marvelously captured the stark beauty and sublime strangeness of two worlds — be they empires, enemies, or lovers — colliding, before any middle ground can be established. For its languid images of Virginia woodlands as much as moments like Wes Studi awestruck by the rigid dominion over nature inherent in English gardens, The New World goes down as a much-overlooked cinematic marvel, and (sorry, Syriana) the best film of 2005.

2. Letters from Iwo Jima: Having thought less of Flags of our Fathers and the woeful Million Dollar Baby than most people, I was almost completely thrown by the dismal grandeur and relentless gloom of Eastwood’s work here. To some extent the Unforgiven of war movies, Iwo Jima is a bleakly rendered siege film that trafficks in few of the usual tropes of the genre. (Don’t worry — I suspect we’ll get those in spades in two months in 300.) Instead of glorious Alamo-style platitudes, we’re left only with the sight of young men — all avowed enemies of America, no less — swallowed up and crushed in the maelstrom of modern combat. From Ken Watanabe’s commanding performance as a captain going down with the ship to Eastwood’s melancholy score, Letters works to reveal one fundamental, haunting truth: Tyrants may be toppled, nations may be liberated, and Pvt. Ryans may be saved, but even “good wars” are ultimately Hell on earth for those expected to do the fighting.

3. Children of Men: In the weeks since I first saw this film, my irritation with the last fifteen minutes or so has diminished, and Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men has emerged for what it is — one of the most resonant “near-future” dystopias to come down the pike in a very long while, perhaps since (the still significantly better) Brazil. Crammed with excellent performances by Clive Owen, Michael Caine, Chiwetel Ejiofor and others, Children is perhaps a loosely-connected grab bag of contemporary anxieties and afflictions (terrorism, detainment camps, pharmaceutical ads, celebrity culture). But it’s assuredly an effective one, with some of the most memorable and naturalistic combat footage seen in several years to boot. I just wished they’d called that ship something else…

4. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan: True, the frighteningly talented Sasha Baron Cohen spends a lot of time in this movie shooting fish in a barrel, and I wish he’d spent a little more time eviscerating subtler flaws in the American character than just knuckle-dragging racists and fratboy sexists. Still, the journeys of Borat Sagdiyev through the Bible Buckle and beyond made for far and away the funniest movie of the year. Verry nice.

5. The Prestige: I originally had this in Children of Men‘s spot, as there are few films I enjoyed as much this year as Christopher Nolan’s sinister sleight-of hand. But, even after bouncing Children up for degree of difficulty, that should take nothing away from The Prestige, a seamlessly made genre film about the rivalries and perils of turn-of-the-century prestidigitation. (There seems to be a back-and-forth between fans of this film and The Illusionist, which I sorta saw on a plane in December. Without sound (which, obviously, is no way to see a movie), Illusionist seemed like an implausible love story set to a tempo of anguished Paul Giamatti reaction shots. In any case, I prefer my magic shows dark and with a twist.) Throw in extended cameos by David Bowie and Andy Serkis — both of which help to mitigate the Johansson factor — and The Prestige was the purest cinematic treat this year for the fanboy nation. Christian Bale in particular does top-notch work here, and I’m very much looking forward to he and Nolan’s run-in with Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight.

6. The Fountain: Darren Aronofsky’s elegiac ode to mortality and devotion was perhaps the most unfairly maligned movie of the year. (In a perfect world, roughly half of the extravagant praise going to Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth would have been lavished on this film.) Clearly a heartfelt and deeply personal labor of love, The Fountain — admittedly clunky in his first half hour — was a visually memorable tone poem that reminds us that all things — perhaps especially the most beautiful — are finite, so treasure them while you can.

7. The Queen: A movie I shied away from when it first came out, The Queen is a canny look at contemporary politics anchored by Helen Mirren’s sterling performance as the fastidious, reserved, and ever-so-slightly downcast monarch in question. (Michael Sheen’s Tony Blair is no slouch either.) In fact, The Queen is the type of movie I wish we saw more often: a small, tightly focused film about a very specific moment in recent history. Indeed, between this and United 93, 2006 proved to be a good year for smart and affecting depictions of the very recent past — let’s hope the trend continues through the rest of the oughts.

8. Inside Man: The needless Jodie Foster subplot notwithstanding, Spike Lee’s Inside Man was a fun, expertly-made crime procedural, as good in its own way as the much more heavily-touted Departed. It was also, without wearing it on its sleeve, the film Crash should have been — a savvy look at contemporary race relations that showed there are many more varied and interesting interactions between people of different ethnicities than simply “crashing” into each other. (But perhaps that’s how y’all roll over in car-culture LA.) At any rate, Inside Man is a rousing New York-centric cops-and-robbers pic in the manner of Dog Day Afternoon or The Taking of the Pelham One Two Three, and it’s definitely one of the more enjoyable movie experiences of the year.

9. Dave Chappelle’s Block Party: Speaking of enjoyable New York-centric movie experiences, Dave Chappelle and Michel Gondry’s block party last year felt like a breath of pure spring air after a long, cold, lonely winter — time to kick off the sweaters and parkas and get to groovin’ with your neighbors. With performances by some of the most innovative and inspired players in current hip-hop (Kanye, Mos Def, The Roots, The Fugees, Erykah Badu), and presided over by the impish, unsinkable Chappelle, Block Party was one of the best concert films in recent memory, and simply more fun than you can shake a stick at.

10. Casino Royale: Bond is back! Thanks to Daniel Craig’s portrayal of 007 as a blunt, glitched-up human being rather than a Casanova Superspy, and a script that eschewed the UV laser pens and time-release exploding cufflinks of Bonds past for more hard-boiled and gritty fodder, Casino Royale felt straight from the pen of Ian Fleming, and newer and more exciting than any 007 movie in decades.

11. The Departed: A very good movie brimming over with quality acting (notably Damon and Di Caprio) and support work — from Mark Wahlberg, Alec Baldwin, Vera Farmiga, Ray Winstone, and others — Scorsese’s The Departed also felt a bit too derivative of its splendid source material, Infernal Affairs, to merit the top ten. And then there’s the Jack problem: An egregiously over-the-top Nicholson chews so much scenery here that it’s a wonder there’s any of downtown Boston left standing. But, despite these flaws, The Departed is well worth seeing, and if it finally gets Scorsese his Best Director Oscar (despite Greengrass deserving it), it won’t be too much of an outrage.

[11.] Toto The Hero (1991): Also sidelined out of this top twenty on account of its release date, Jaco Von Dormael’s Toto the Hero — Terry Gilliam’s choice of screening for an IFC Movie Night early in October — is definitely one for the Netflix queue, particularly if you’re a fan of Gilliam’s oeuvre. It’s a bizarre coming-of-age/going-of-age tale that includes thoughts of envy, murder, incest, and despair, all the while remaining somehow whimsical and fantastical at its core. (And, trust me: As with Ary Borroso’s “Brazil“, you’ll be left humming Charles Trenet’s “Boum” to yourself long after the movie is over.)

12. Tristam Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story: I guess this is where I should be writing something brief and scintillating about Michael Winterbottom’s metanarrative version of Laurence Sterne’s famous novel, one which gives Steve Coogan — and the less well-known Rob Brydon — a superlative chance to work their unique brand of comedic mojo. But I’m growing distracted and Berk has that pleading “I-want-to-go-out, are-you-done-yet” look and Kevin’s still only on Number 12 of a list that, for all intent and purposes, is three weeks late and will be read by all of eight people anyway. (But don’t tell him that — In fact, I shouldn’t even talk about him behind his back.) So, perhaps we’ll come back to this later…it’s definitely a review worth writing (again), if I could just figure out how to start.

13. Miami Vice: Michael Mann’s moody reimagining of the TV show that made him famous isn’t necessarily his best work, but it was one of the more unique and absorbing movies of the summer, and one that lingers in the memory long after much of the year’s fluffier and more traditional films have evaporated. Dr. Johnson (and Hunter Thompson) once wrote that “He who makes a beast out of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.” I guess that’s what Crockett and Tubbs are going for with the nightclubs and needle boats.

14. CSA: The Confederate States of America: I wish I were in the land of cotton…or have we been there all along? Kevin Wilmott’s alternate history of a victorious Confederate America is a savvy and hilarious send-up of history documentaries and a sharp-witted, sharp-elbowed piece of satire with truths to tell about the shadow of slavery in our past. With any luck, CSA will rise again on the DVD circuit.

15. The Science of Sleep: Not as good or as universally applicable as his Eternal Sunshine (the best film of 2004), Michel Gondry’s dreamlike, unabashedly romantic The Science of Sleep is still a worthy inquiry into matters of the (broken) heart. What is it about new love that is so intoxicating? And why do the significant others in our mind continue to haunt us so, even when they bear such little relation to the people they initially represented? Science doesn’t answer these crucial questions (how can it?), but it does acutely diagnose the condition. When it comes to relationships, Sleep suggests, all we have to do — sometimes all we can do, despite ourselves — is dream.

16. Rocky Balboa: Rocky! Rocky! Rocky! I’m as surprised as anyone that Sly’s sixth outing as Philadelphia’s prized pugilist made the top twenty. But, as formulaic as it is, Rocky Balboa delivered the goods like a Ivan Drago right cross. Ultimately not quite as enjoyable as Bond’s return to the service, Rocky Balboa still made for a commendable final round for the Italian Stallion. And, if nothing else, he went down fighting.

17. Pan’s Labyrinth: A fantasy-horror flick occurring simultaneously within a Spanish Civil War film, Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth ultimately felt to me like less than the sum of its parts. But if the plaudits it’s receiving help to mainstream other genre movies in critics’ eyes in the future, I’m all for it. It’s an ok movie, no doubt, but if you’re looking for to see one quality supernatural-historical tale of twentieth-century Spain, rent del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone instead.

18. Little Miss Sunshine: Another film which I think is being way overpraised, Little Miss Sunshine is still a moderately enjoyable evening at the movies. It felt overscripted and television-ish to me, and I wish it was as way over yonder in the minor key as it pretends to be, but Sunshine is nevertheless a cute little IFC-style family film, and one that does have a pretty funny payoff at the end.

19. The Last King of Scotland: I just wrote on this one yesterday, so my impressions haven’t changed much. Still, Forrest Whitaker’s jovial and fearsome Idi Amin, and an almost-equally-good performance by James McAvoy as the dissolute young Scot who unwittingly becomes his minion, makes The Last King of Scotland worth seeing, if you can bear its grisly third act.

20. Thank You for Smoking: It showed flashes of promise, and it was all there on paper, in the form of Chris Buckley’s book. But Smoking, alas, never really lives up to its potential. What Smoking needed was the misanthropic jolt and sense of purpose of 2005’s Lord of War, a much more successful muckraking satire, to my mind. But Smoking, like its protagonist, just wants to be liked, and never truly commits to its agenda. Still, pleasant enough, if you don’t consider the opportunity cost.

Most Disappointing: All the King’s Men, X3: The Last Stand — Both, unfortunately, terrible.

Worth a Rental: A Scanner Darkly, Brick, Cache, Cars, Curse of the Golden Flower, Glory Road, The History Boys, Marie Antoinette, Match Point (2005), V for Vendetta, Why We Fight

Don’t Bother: Bobby, Crash (2005), The Da Vinci Code, Flags of our Fathers, The Good German, The Good Shepherd, Mission: Impossible: III, Night Watch (2004), Pirates of the Caribbean 2: Dead Men’s Chest, Poseidon, Scoop, Superman Returns, The Wicker Man, World Trade Center

Best Actor: Clive Owen, Children of Men; Forrest Whitaker, The Last King of Scotland; Ken Watanabe, Letters from Iwo Jima
Best Actress: Helen Mirren, The Queen; Q’Orianka Kilcher, The New World
Best Supporting Actor: Mark Wahlberg, The Departed; Michael Caine, Children of Men/The Prestige
Best Supporting Actress: Pam Farris, Children of Men; Vera Farmiga, The Departed; Maribel Verdu, Pan’s Labyrinth

Unseen: Apocalypto, Babel, Blood Diamond, Catch a Fire, Clerks II, The Descent, The Devil Wears Prada, Dreamgirls, Fast Food Nation, Hollywoodland, An Inconvenient Truth, Infamous, Inland Empire, Jackass Number Two, Jet Li’s Fearless, Lassie, Little Children, Notes from a Scandal, The Notorious Betty Page, A Prairie Home Companion, The Pursuit of Happyness, Running With Scissors, Sherrybaby, Shortbus, Stranger than Fiction, Tideland, Venus, Volver, Wordplay

2007: The list isn’t looking all that great, to be honest. But, perhaps we’ll find some gems in here…: 300, 3:10 To Yuma, Beowulf, Black Snake Moan, The Bourne Ultimatum, FF2, The Golden Age: Elizabeth II, The Golden Compass, Grindhouse, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Hot Fuzz, I Am Legend, Live Free or Die Hard, Ocean’s Thirteen, PotC3, The Simpsons Movie, Smokin’ Aces, Spiderman 3, Stardust, The Transformers, Zodiac.

Compass Heading.

More images from The Golden Compass emerge online, including new looks at Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards), Lee Scoresby (Sam Elliot), Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman), and Lord Asriel (Craig. Daniel Craig.) Also in the mix, Eva Green (as Serafina Pekkala) and Ian McShane (as the voice of Ragnar Sturlusson). [They’re also posted here.]

Rider on the Storm.

Son, you’ve got a flamin’ panty on your head…The new teaser for Ghost Rider, starring Nicolas Cage as Johnny Blaze (along with Sam Elliot, Eva Mendes, Donal Logue, and Wes Bentley), is now online. Never been a fan of the comic — it’s always screamed Blue Oyster Cult to me — so I highly doubt I was going to catch this anyway. Still, this trailer didn’t help matters.

Smoke Signals.

Brimming with affable actors and a cool, refreshing menthol topicality, Thank You for Smoking, which I caught last night in Union Square, is a wry, decently amusing satire — one that’s not much for side-splitting bellylaughs but good for a consistent chuckle throughout. Very few scenes go by without a few snappy lines or clever sight gag, and the film is all the more endearing for its understatement — like cigarettes, a lot of these jokes almost sell themselves. Still, I haven’t read Chris Buckley’s book, but I can’t escape the suspicion that a devastatingly funny movie could’ve been made from this source material if the filmmakers had just gone for it, um, unfiltered. More often than not, the film seems to want to be liked, when what it really needed was a jolt of the same type of dark misanthropy that propelled last year’s Lord of War (i.e. Thank You for Shooting.) I’d say it’s worth seeing, and I was definitely smiling through most of the film. But, at crucial times, and particularly in the second half, Thank You for Smoking feels too lo-tar and antiseptic for its own good. (Oh, and sorry, Tom Cruise conspiracy theorists: Katie Holmes’ brief sex scenes are still here.)

For those who haven’t seen the preview, the film follows the exploits of uber-charismatic cigarette lobbyist Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart, doing a friendlier variation on his In the Company of Men turn), a guy who basically has the heart of The X-Files‘s Cigarette Smoking Man in the body of Mr. Smith (Think Capra, not Matrix.) Sent on various charm offensives by his immediate boss (J.K. Simmons, pitch-perfect) and the head office in Winston-Salem (Robert Duvall, doing his R.E. Lee schtick again), Naylor must flatter, cajole, bluff, and wheedle his way past a number of moderately funny archetypes, including a Birkenstock-clad senator from Vermont (William H. Macy), a ruthless Orientophile Hollywood exec (Rob Lowe), their various flunkies (Todd Louiso, Adam Brody), and a thoroughly disgruntled Marlboro Man now suffering from lung cancer (Sam Elliott). Along for the ride on this tobacco tour is Naylor’s kid (Cameron Bright) — on loan from the ex-wife (Deadwood‘s Kim Dickens) and her new doctor boyfriend,(whose studiously scruffy beard is one of the many funny details herein) — and Nick spends much of the film trying to inculcate his son in the ways of activism for the amoral. (I have to admit, it’s hard to watch these scenes and not think of the author and his own dad, the venerable William F. Buckley, Jr..)

Like I said, for the most part Thank You for Smoking is a jaunty and amusing two hours, with enough clever moments to keep the general atmosphere lively and droll. Still, at times, it’s hard not to feel that there are opportunities missed here, particularly when the movie loses its step. (The climax, in which Naylor testifies before Congress, is basically a non-starter.) For one, the film occasionally jumps to voiceover (a la Lord of War), without ever really committing to it, and so it ends up feeling like lazy writing. And some potentially funny jokes just seem clumsily telegraphed — to take one small example, when Naylor’s gun lobbyist friend (Anchorman‘s David Koechner) has trouble with a security gate. Speaking of Koechner, he and Eckhart share several scenes with alcohol lobbyst Maria Bello (The Cooler, A History of Violence) as the “MOD” (“Merchants of Destruction”) Squad, which feel like they should be the centerpiece of the film. But Bello (an actress I’ll admit to rooting for) is almost criminally underused here — her best gag ends up being her quintessentially DC power-suit.

Not to miss the carton for the smokes, Thank You is a smart comedy that’s aimed at adults and funny enough to recommend…but I can’t help thinking it needed to be more rough around the edges, more stogie and less nicotine patch.

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