- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 16, 2006

“Thank You for Smoking’s” Nick Naylor might have the toughest job in the world convincing us smoking isn’t as bad as every scientific study says it is.

—Not much easier was first time director Jason Reitman’s assignment: to turn Christopher Buckley’s 1994 lobbyist satire into a film that defied formula at every turn.

Turns out Mr. Reitman is as good at his job as Nick is at his.

When even minor characters like Rob Lowe’s agent leave a slime trail a mile long, you know the young writer and director is onto something wicked.

Mr. Reitman, son of famed comedy director Ivan Reitman (“Ghostbusters”), retained much of the novel’s whip-smart humor while amping up the father-son angle to force our protagonist to weave an extra layer of spin.

Otherwise, the novel’s snaky charms remain intact, as do several pithy scenes translated more or less as written.

The film opens on a fictional talk show set where a panel of anti-smoking advocates are about to burn Nick (Aaron Eckhart) to a crisp.

Nick looks nervous, but don’t be fooled. By the first commercial break he’s won over the panel, and the sentimental studio audience, with his cheery spin.

He’s that good at pooh-poohing the cold, hard realities of smoking while telling us the tobacco industry cares deeply about mankind.

His cool turn sparks a sitdown with the Captain (Robert Duvall). He’s the venerable head of the isn’t he the CEO of the tobacco COMPANY?could prove the Earth is flat if there were a buck in it. The Captain gives Nick permission to start a new smoking campaign. He’ll convince A-listers to smoke on-screen via some not-so-subtle product placement.

He meets with Mr. Lowe’s Jeff Megall, a Hollywood superagent whose morals are shaky even by Nick’s dubious standards, and a deal is quickly struck.

Powerful forces are trying to stop Nick at every turn. A pretty young reporter (Katie Holmes, less embarrassing here than in “Batman Begins” but still a lightweight) is prepping an expose on Nick, and self-righteous Sen. Ortolan Finistirre (William H. Macy) wants to slap every cigarette pack with a skull and crossbones label.

Nick can handle these two, but what throws him off his game is having his young son (“Running Scared’s” Cameron Bright) tag along as he seals the deal.

Nick is used to spinning the public, but spinning his son is another matter.

Or is it?

Like “Team America: World Police,” no one emerges unscathed from “Smoking.” Senators scramble for face time, reporters get in bed, literally, with their sources and, best of all, Nick’s peers brag about death rates and media saturation.

They’re the MOD Squad (Merchants of Death), fellow lobbyists who spin on behalf of alcohol and firearms. Maria Bello and former “Saturday Night Live” cast member David Koechner leave memorable impressions during their brief scenes.

Mr. Eckhart has never been this commanding or infuriating on-screen, and this from an actor who played the insidious woman-hating cad from “In the Company of Men.”

Beyond “Thank You for Smoking’s” episodic story pacing, there’s precious little Mr. Reitman could do to make his debut film bite harder or deeper. The movie’s personal responsibility coda is as priceless as it is unheard of in films today.

We can all say “Thank You” for this hilarious exception.

*** 1/2

TITLE: “Thank You for Smoking”

RATING: R (Adult language, sexual situations and partial nudity)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Jason Reitman, based on the novel of the same name by Christopher Buckley.

RUNNING TIME: 92 minutes

WEB SITE:

https://www2.foxsearchlight.com/thankyouforsmoking/teaser/

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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