I grew up in a haze of cigarette smoke. My dad (emphysema) went through three packs a day. My mom (lung cancer) went through two packs a day. And I myself have respiratory problems that, let's face it, are probably attributable to secondhand smoke. But I'm not such an anti-smoking fiend that I wasn't able to enjoy Thank You for Smoking, Jason Reitman's satiric comedy about a tobacco-industry lobbyist who actually seems to feel good about what he does for a living. Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart) is handsome in a business-suit, expensive-haircut sort of way. And boy can he present an argument. Defending the indefensible, he has an answer for everything, and it doesn't matter whether it's the right answer or not. It doesn't even matter whether he believes the answer. It only matters that he has an answer, a rejoinder, a witty retort. My parents would have loved the guy.
And you may too. Based on Christopher Buckley's 1994 novel, which, taking on the smoking/anti-smoking debate, let both sides have it with both barrels, Thank You for Smoking is refreshingly un-PC. It doesn't exactly praise Naylor, who would do anything for a cigarette, but it doesn't exactly condemn him either. And his personality seems to consist of equal parts charm and smarm. Yes, he'd say just about anything to further the noble cause of Big Tobacco, but he'd be the first to admit that; he's sincerely insincere. Early on in the movie, he makes a what-my-dad-does-for-a-living appearance at his son's school, and before you've gotten over the shock of a man convincing a group of kids that the jury's still out on the dangers of smoking, he's framed the discussion in terms of children's need to think for themselves. He has all the answers. It's the questions that give him trouble.
Then he gets sent to Hollywood, a town that's even better at blowing smoke up the public's ass than he is. Naylor's mission: Get people smoking in movies again, and not just the RAVs (Russians, Arabs, Villains). Humphrey Bogart (esophageal cancer) used to smoke like a chimney, on and off the screen, and he was the very definition of cool. Why can't the Dream Factory light up again? These scenes, starring Rob Lowe as a kimono-draped sensei à la Michael Ovitz (and Adam Brody as his viciously sycophantic assistant), are the movie at its very best, all but dripping in sarcasm. And in Lowe's über-agent, Naylor has finally found his match, a spin doctor whose whole life is a series of house calls. ("When do you sleep?" Naylor asks him. "Sunday," Lowe replies.) Does this cause our nicotine-addicted hero to entertain second thoughts? On the contrary, he's more wired than ever.
Then he gets kidnapped, but only briefly, just long enough for the kidnappers to cover his body with nicotine patches, a potentially lethal laying on of hands. Like Alexander Payne's Citizen Ruth, which reduced the abortion debate to a frolic, Thank You for Smoking gives off a caffeinated buzz. It doesn't go for big laughs, just lets the smaller ones build on occasion. And Reitman, who adapted Buckley's novel himself, adds little cinematic touches - e.g., freeze-frames where Naylor fills in the background on somebody via narration - that help preserve the book's slightly giddy tone. Strangely enough, there's no actual smoking in the movie, even by Naylor, whom we're told puts his mouth where his money is. On the other hand, we're introduced to a former Marlboro Man (Sam Elliott) who now sucks from one oxygen canister after another. Naylor drops off a suitcase full of cash to keep him quiet.
Believe it or not, the movie does have a moral compass, and so does Naylor. Just don't expect it to point due north. When Naylor heads out to Hollywood, he takes his son (Cameron Bright) along for the ride, and you expect a moment of truth to arrive, but there are no moments of truth in the PR business, only moments of truthiness. Like so many fathers before him, Naylor tries to pass on what he's learned. And not even an exposé by a reporter (Katie Holmes) who specializes in undercover - make that between-the-sheets - work can dim the son's admiration. Nor does a congressional inquiry led by a Birkenstock-liberal senator from Vermont (Bill Macy), who would gladly walk over his grandmother to nail Naylor. Nobody comes out of this poop-flinging contest smelling like a rose. But the pox-on-both-your-houses approach is like a breath of... well, not fresh air, really, but highly mentholated.