‘Smoking’ may cause laughter

While working on a report for school, 12-year-old Joey Naylor (Cameron Bright) asks his dad, “Why is the American government the best government in the world?”

Nick Naylor replies, “Our endless appeals system.”

Say hello to Nick (Aaron Eckhart), a vice president of the Academy of Tobacco Studies. In actuality, he’s the chief lobbyist for Big Tobacco.

Say hello … or spit in his face. Many people do.

As a prying reporter (Katie Holmes) tells him, “My other interviews have pinned you as a mass murderer, bloodsucker, pimp, profiteer and, my personal favorite, yuppie Mephistopheles.”

Nick has found a niche with which to exploit his boyish good looks and relentless personal charm. His gift allows him to successfully defend the indefensible. To spin facts that are immovable. To put a smiley face on a skull and crossbones.

“If you argue correctly, you’re never wrong,” he explains.

Nick is the first truly memorable character to hit screens this year in “Thank You for Smoking,” a comedy both as dark as a black lung and as illuminating as a stadium full of flicked lighters.

As played by Eckhart – best known as the misogynistic corporate cutthroat of “In the Company of Men” – Nick is a complex, often frustrating individual. Deep down he knows his actions are questionable, but he’s so impressed with his own skills that it allows him a “certain moral flexibility that goes beyond most people.”

The film follows the divorced lobbyist during a stretch when his impressionable son wants to spend quality time with his father. Together they embark on a variety of oddball errands.

They are sent with a briefcase of $100 bills to the rustic home of Lorne Lutch (Sam Elliott), an original Marlboro Man now dying of cancer and gearing up to rage against his former employer.

Then there’s a trip to Hollywood in order to get a major studio (headed by Rob Lowe) to try to introduce smoking back into movies, which provides an opportunity to meet the only crowd more habitually deluded than the tobacco lobby.

Throughout the story Nick battles with Sen. Ortolan Finistirre (William H. Macy), a Vermont politician on the opposing side of the health issue. The senator wants to introduce a poison label onto all cigarette packages and has subpoenaed the spokesman to testify before a committee.

Nick does have some allies, though. Each week he grabs a meal with a group of pals that dubs itself the M.O.D. Squad (for Merchants of Death). Polly (Maria Bello) represents the alcohol industry, and Bobby (David Koechner) heads the gun lobby. In one of the picture’s standout moments, the trio argues over which one of their products kill the most people. Nick’s staggering tobacco stats make him the proud winner.

There is not an abundance of forward momentum to the plot of “Thank You for Smoking.” It takes awhile before it moves beyond a series of humorous vignettes.

Writer-director Jason Reitman (son of “Ghostbusters” filmmaker Ivan Reitman), in adapting the novel of the same name by Christopher Buckley (son of political commentator William F. Buckley), instead concentrates on making the film a character piece. That in itself is pretty interesting because there have been few, if any, movies made that feature someone with this particular profession.

Ultimately, the film is more about the mechanics of spin than it is a barbed essay on the evils of tobacco. (Look to “The Insider” to fill that role.) One hilarious montage implies Nick could alternately be a lobbyist for just about anything, from the oil industry to the guys who club baby seals.

Perhaps that’s why that at no point during the movie is anyone shown actually smoking a cigarette.