Much has changed in Washington D.C. since the publication of Christopher Buckley’s satirical 1994 novel about unscrupulous lobbyists, “Thank You For Smoking.” But writer-director Jason Reitman’s hilarious movie version couldn’t be timelier.
At a time when “spin” has crept into every corner of our lives, Buckley’s cheekily fair-and-balanced approach seems just right. He and Reitman are as tough on Big Tobacco as they are on well-meaning anti-tobacco legislators. They’re also as tough on lobbyists as they are on those who admire them — and those who think there’s no lower form of life.
Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart) is a sleaze, no question about it, but he’s a charming sleaze, even if his estranged wife and her new boyfriend see only anti-charm. His precocious 12-year-old son Joey (Cameron Bright), who begs to spend time with his father, can’t resist dad’s fast-talking, logic-twisting defense of smokers.
Neither can investigator reporter Heather Halloway (Katie Holmes), who seduces Nick into telling all about his future plans and current cronies. These include Maria Bello as a veteran lobbyist who has been just as successful as Nick in her own booze-promoting fashion.
When a fanatical senator, Ortolan Finistirre (William H. Macy), attempts to put a poison label on cigarette packs, Nick comes up with an ingenious plan to thwart him. He impresses and flatters his boss (J.K. Simmons) as well as his boss’ boss (Robert Duvall), who admires his ideas about glamourizing smokers by putting them into high-profile movies.
Rob Lowe, perfectly cast (and does he know it), turns up as a hotshot Hollywood agent who wants to make it happen. Dennis Miller slyly sends up his own talk-show persona, and Sam Elliott is almost too convincing as a cancer-stricken Marlboro man who has second thoughts about the image he’s been projecting. When Naylor buys his silence, the movie flirts with a sombre tone, though the change of mood is decidedly temporary.
Reitman, the son of director Ivan Reitman (“Ghostbusters”), had a film-festival hit six years ago with “In God We Trust,” a swift, satisfyingly twisty 17-minute short about the perils of purgatory. He maintains that pace with “Thank You For Smoking,” which marks his feature debut.
Under Reitman’s direction, Eckhart connects with the meatiest role he’s had since he played the chief villain in “In the Company of Men” (1997). Nick could be a cousin to Nicolas Cage’s amoral gun-runner in “Lord of War”; he just embodies a different, less obviously lethal kind of ruthlessness.
Bello, Duvall and Holmes make the most of their too-brief scenes, and so does Macy, who gets funnier as the script undermines his character’s self-righteousness. The movie’s comic high point may be Finistirre’s desperate, cornered attempt to proclaim the superiority of cholesterol over nicotine.
Reitman is especially good at establishing the relationship between Nick and Joey, which turns out to be one of the more credible father-son friendships in recent movies. For all his hooey, Nick is an attentive father, Joey is a quick learner, and they end up making a formidable debating team.