Slick, stylish and sharp-witted, “Thank You for Smoking” is an entertaining satire on contemporary morality that skewers corporate spin culture, political correctness and that most rhetorical of concepts in Bush’s America, personal freedom. Playing a Big Tobacco lobbyist, Aaron Eckhart puts his golden news-anchor good looks and smooth conviction to better use than in any pic since his breakthrough film, “In the Company of Men.” While it won’t catapult him into the $100 million club with dad Ivan, writer-director Jason Reitman’s debut was an instant acquisitions target in Toronto that should appeal to hip urbanites, particularly guys.
Based on the novel by Christopher Buckley, the film might have been merely another derisively glib smack-down of a culture in which empty doublespeak reigns supreme. Instead, Reitman’s script and his incisive cast — with the exception of two obviously drawn characters — lay sufficient analytical foundation to give ballast to the comedy’s wry irreverence.
First seen on Joan Lunden’s talkshow masterfully turning the tables on anti-smoking crusaders, Nick Naylor (Eckhart) is a gifted spin artist with no moral qualms about being the media spokesman for an industry that kills millions. He lunches regularly with the “M.O.D. Squad,” short for “Merchants of Death” — his counterparts in the alcohol and firearm industries, respectively: Polly (Maria Bello) and Bobby Jay (David Koechner).
Despite the consternation of ex-wife Jill (Kim Dickens), Nick exerts a powerful influence on his young son Joey (Cameron Bright), who absorbs dad’s key lesson: “The beauty of an argument is that if you argue correctly, you’re never wrong.”
A chief anti-smoking combatant, liberal Vermont Sen. Ortolan Finistirre (William H. Macy), is lobbying to emblazon a skull-and-crossbones on every cigarette pack label. Nick is enlisted to combat the senator’s plan by the Captain (Robert Duvall), who heads the Academy of Tobacco Studies.
Observing that movie stars once lent glamorous cachet to smoking but now only “psychopaths and Europeans” light up onscreen, Nick heads for Hollywood to schmooze Zen-spouting uber-agent Jeff Megall (Rob Lowe).
While Nick deals with death threats, a near-lethal kidnapping plot and the angry original Marlboro Man (Sam Elliott), now dying of cancer, the real stumbling block comes from a devastating profile in the Washington Probe by Heather Holloway (Katie Holmes).
Exuding cleverness, confidence and moral elasticity with a smug smile that never excludes likability, Eckhart is ideally cast. And if the movie’s ending doesn’t quite maintain the same level of coolly cynical insightfulness that comes before, nor does it sell Nick out and go for artificial redemption.
Making the most of the snappy dialogue are Bello and Koechner, whose scenes take mischievous digs at health nuts and sanctimonious liberals. Juicy contributions come also from Lowe; the suitably weather-beaten Elliott;; Adam Brody, hilarious as agent Jeff’s rah-rah hustler assistant; J.K. Simmons as Nick’s irascible, hard-ass Vietnam vet boss; and Duvall as a mint julep-sipping good ol’ Southern boy. The darkly intense Bright also makes a strong impression.
Sole relatively weak notes come from Holmes, who lacks even a hint of the wiliness of a ruthless reporter; and from the reliable Macy, who is cramped here by obvious writing in his easy-target liberal character.
Showing a confidence at the helm that befits a guy who grew up on movie sets, Reitman assembles a tight tech package, including sleek widescreen lensing by James Whitaker, clean editing by Dana A. Glauberman and a score by composer Rolfe Kent that alternates between loose jazzy riffs and more whimsical notes. Also well deployed are some vintage smokin’ songs, including numbers by Tex Williams, the Mills Brothers and the Kingston Trio.