Of all the morally dubious career choices (hangman, dog catcher, Mafia lawyer, critic) none may dwell deeper in the ethical sinkhole than the tobacco lobbyist. To be able to smile and seek government protection for a product that kills an estimated 1,200 people a day -- the devil should have such advocates.
Aaron Eckhart practically exults in the wicked glee of Thank You for Smoking's antihero, Nick Naylor, whose very name evokes nicotine. The quintessential bulletproof flack, Nick can appear as a daytime talk show's designated villain alongside enraged activists and a bald "cancer boy," and emerge with the studio audience eating out of his hands. Adapting Christopher Buckley's satirical novel, first-time writer/director Jason Reitman takes a match to political hypocrisies of the left, right and center with a scorching wit worthy of Nick himself.
Thank You for Smoking takes palpable delight at the double-speak of the spin industry. Nick works for a sleazy but well-funded lobbying agency called the "Academy of Tobacco Studies." In his off-hours, Nick pals around with his opposite numbers (Maria Bello and David Koechner, respectively) at the pro-booze "Moderation Council" and the firearm-advocacy group "S.A.F.E.T.Y.," and they compete over which one promotes the most lethal product.
With frat-boy swagger and ruthless smarts, Nick unflinchingly defends his profession. The Nick Naylors of the world champion such voiceless, down-trodden minorities as the logger, the sweatshop owner and the land mine developer. Nick embodies the downside of a free society in which everyone is entitled to his own opinion and a legal defense, no matter how ignorant or guilty he may be. As Nick tells his son, Joey (Cameron Bright), "The beauty of argument is that if you argue correctly, you're never wrong."
You can't say Nick is a man of integrity, since he clearly has none. The film rises to the challenge of keeping Nick faithful to his own lack of principles by testing his screw-you self-confidence without resorting to a phony-baloney change of heart. Nick can face down anyone, from a meddlesome Vermont senator (William H. Macy) to the cancer-ridden Lorne Lutch (Sam Elliott), "the original Marlboro Man." He only wrestles with some serious self-examination when he wonders about the example he sets for Joey. Bright, with his poker face and blazing eyes, gives a performance so free of cutesy touches that Joey seems perfectly capable of growing up a sociopath if he takes Nick's lessons to heart.
In a kind of evil example of Take Your Kid to Work Day, Nick brings Joey on some business ventures in California. In the film's comic highlight, Nick takes meetings with a messianic Hollywood super-agent (a pitch-perfect Rob Lowe) over how to reintroduce cigarettes into glamorous movies. Smoking takes a darker turn when Nick tries to buy the silence of angry, outspoken Lutch with a satchel of money. In a brilliant piece of brinksmanship, Nick argues that Lutch can either take the bribe in silence, or publicize the money and give it to charity.
He badly underestimates an ambitious young journalist (Katie Holmes) by seducing her -- but who seduces whom? Some minor controversy surrounded sex scenes excised from Smoking's Sundance premiere, and though the film now features plenty of action in the bedroom (and other parts of the house), Holmes' character otherwise makes little impression. Similarly, Smoking takes a surreal turn when anti-tobacco guerrillas target Nick (at one point leaving him polka-dotted with nicotine patches), but the subplot flickers out with no payoff.
Like Michael Mann's anti-tobacco drama The Insider, Thank You for Smoking never actually shows anyone lighting up and taking a good, long lung-full. Nick and his cohorts discuss cigarettes in such loving, sensual terms that you might not notice the absence, but the film's smoke-free environment may be the only way it plays it safe. Like the allure of cigarettes or Eckhart's bad-boy performance, Thank You for Smoking feels like a favorite vice: You like it when it feels bad for you.