Thank You for Smoking

“Thank You for Smoking” was directed by Jason Reitman, the 29-year-old son of director Ivan Reitman. The old man should be proud, and maybe a little jealous. “Thank You for Smoking” is better than anything he’s done since “Ghostbusters.”

Based on Christopher Buckley’s scathing 1994 novel, “Thank You for Smoking” (which the younger Reitman adapted, too) is a straight-faced dark satire about the all-American pastimes of spin-doctoring, lying and bullying your opponent with so much rhetoric that people start to think HE’S the liar. It’s a confident, razor-sharp comedy.

The place is Washington, D.C., the time is now. Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart) is the top spokesman at the Academy of Tobacco Studies, which is really just a fancy name for the lobbyists for Big Tobacco. Nick’s job is to contradict every study from the American Lung Association with a barrage of counter-studies, half-truths and double-talk. His job is to help Big Tobacco sell their cigarettes, to keep politicians from passing anti-smoking laws, and to get positive depictions of smoking included in the media wherever he can. His job is to sell death.

He does it remarkably well. A born shmoozer, Nick is suave, square-jawed and ever-smiling. (From a physical standpoint, this is the part Aaron Eckhart was born to play.) He is utterly shameless as a tobacco lobbyist, an expert at using his charisma to get people on his side — even though his side is the one that wants to encourage more smoking, especially among teen-agers (get ’em while they’re young and you’ve got a customer for life). When his 12-year-old son Joey (Cameron Bright) asks him about debating someone even though he is patently wrong, Nick responds, “If you argue correctly, you’re never wrong.” In other words, having the truth on your side doesn’t make you a winner; being a better debater does.

Nick meets for lunch once a week with his fellow members in the “M.O.D. (Merchants of Death) Squad”: Polly Bailey (Maria Bello), who is Nick’s equivalent in the alcohol lobby, and firearm lobbyist Bobby Jay Bliss (David Koechner). They compare notes and commiserate on how the world is turning against all three of their products. In their souls they know most of what they spew are blatant lies, but that’s beside the point. They have mortgages to pay, and their jobs are certainly challenging, to say the least.

Nick’s becomes more challenging when Vermont Sen. Ortolan Finistirre (William H. Macy) introduces a bill that would put a new warning label on cigarettes: the word “POISON” in black, accompanied by a skull and crossbones. Meanwhile, Nick is trying to get some cigarette product placement in a huge new Hollywood film (Rob Lowe has a couple of hilarious scenes as the producer arranging the deal), and he’s also begun dating a newspaper reporter, Heather Holloway (Katie Holmes, back when she was allowed to have fun), who is working on a story about him.

Having read the book (to which the film is mostly faithful, though a couple of characters have been eliminated), I am perhaps mostly impressed by the pitch-perfect casting of the film. J.K. Simmons, who plays Peter Parker’s blustery boss in the “Spider-Man” movies, is similarly boisterous but much more weaselly as B.R., Nick’s boss at the Academy of Tobacco Studies, barking out pep talks like this: “We don’t sell Tic Tacs, we sell cigarettes. They’re cool and available and addictive. The job is almost done for you!”

Sam Elliott, the quintessential modern cowboy type (he was The Stranger in “The Big Lebowski”), has one fantastic scene as a one-time Marlboro man who is now dying of cancer and speaking out against his former employers. I can’t think of anyone better to play the role.

And what about William H. Macy as a persnickety senator, or David Koechner as an unhinged gun fanatic, or Robert Duvall as a North Carolina tobacco company billionaire? (“Tobacco takes care of its own,” he drawls to his new protege Nick while sipping a mint julep.) To paraphrase B.R., when you have a cast this good, and everyone’s in roles to which they are so genuinely suited, the job is almost done for you.

Reitman handles the film’s eventful narrative (I didn’t even tell you about the attempt on Nick’s life) with smooth, even-handed precision. If it slows down in the middle, it’s only so Reitman can reload and fire some more shots in the finale. Everything about the film is as slick and sure as Nick Naylor himself, right down to our hero’s character arc as a good guy who eventually learns how to actually be good.

B+ (1 hr., 32 min.; R, a lot of harsh profanity, brief strong sexuality.)