Smart, snappy R-rated comedies that aren't about overgrown frat boys trying to get laid do not come along very often, so please take note of Thank You for Smoking, an exceptional satire for grown-ups. Based on the novel by Christopher Buckley, the story of a charismatic lobbyist for the tobacco industry is focused and very funny.
Writer-director Jason Reitman, son of Ghostbusters and Dave director Ivan, is impressive here, maintaining a sharp comedic edge without becoming icy or mean. Mind you, plenty of cold, cruel things happen in the movie. But Reitman's script, which emphasizes the relationship between the central character and his son, manages to fire its dark salvos without succumbing to despair.
The film boasts a great cast, headed by Aaron Eckhart, who is simply amazing. Eckhart first drew widespread critical praise for his scorching lead performance in Neil LaButes's In the Company of Men, though he is probably best known as the biker boyfriend in Erin Brockovich. With his blond hair, strong features and dimpled chin, he is almost cartoonishly handsome, but it's his enthusiasm and intelligence that really make him attractive.
Eckhart plays Nick Naylor, a spin-doctor working for the Academy of Tobacco Studies. He gains national attention when he appears on a daytime talk show with anti-tobacco activists - including a young teen boy with cancer - and adroitly turns the tables on his opponents. Suddenly, Nick is a star.
He talks cheerfully about his exploits over a meal with his lobbyist pals Polly (Maria Bello), who works for the alcohol industry, and Bobby Jay (David Koechner), employed by the firearms makers. The trio, who lunch together regularly, call themselves "The M.O.D. Squad," short for "merchants of death."
Though his ex-wife Jill (Kim Dickens) frets about his influence, Nick frequently shares his thoughts and experiences with his son Nick (Cameron Bright). "The beauty of an argument is that if you argue correctly, you're never wrong," he tells the boy.
Nick's elevated visibility draws the attention of Vermont Sen. Ortolan Finistirre (William H. Macy), an anti-smoking crusader who wears thermal socks under his sandals. (See how the art of persuasion works? I've cast the senator negatively just by noting his footwear.) Ortolan decides to take on Nick by calling the lobbyist to testify before his Senate committee. Uh-oh.
Meanwhile, Nick is off to Hollywood, hoping to make smoking in movies look more glamorous (currently, only "psychopaths and Europeans" light up on screen, he complains) with the help of super-agent Jeff Megall (Rob Lowe).
There's much more going on, including a romance with a reporter (Katie Holmes), a kidnapping plot and a potentially damaging situation with an ex-Marlboro man (Sam Elliott) dying of cancer, but you get the idea.
In addition to Aaron Eckhart's terrific work, there are many other fine performances from the powerhouse cast, including Rob Lowe as the super-agent, a hilarious Adam Brody as the super-agent's super assistant, J.K. Simmons as Nick's tough-as-nails boss and Robert Duvall as a tobacco company giant. On the downside, William H. Macy gives his all, but his role offers him little room to move, and Katie Holmes fails to offer any layers to her character (unless she was trying to make the reporter an enigma, which I doubt).
With the father and son business, Thank You for Smoking could have gone all gooey towards the end, but it doesn't. Beyond the satire, there is a message about accepting responsibility for ones own actions, but the film doesn't hammer it at us. Jason Reitman understands what made the novel work and he does what is needed to make a successful big-screen adaptation.