Thank You for Smoking

If you took a poll on the professions the American people find least trustworthy, politician, journalist, Hollywood agent and tobacco billionaire would rank high. Why, then, is Jason Reitman's "Thank You for Smoking," being praised for its political daring in having the guts to cut down these not-so-sacred cows? While "Smoking" has some truly funny moments and an assortment of colorful performances, I'm not ready to celebrate a filmmaker with the audacity to say there's a trace of hypocrisy in American social discourse.

"Smoking" stars Aaron Eckhart as Nick Naylor, a leading spokesman for Big Tobacco. Wherever there's a Cancer Kid trying to win public sympathy, Nick's sent in to fight back. He's great at his job. When he isn't lobbying for deathmongers, Nick's just another likeable guy doing whatever's necessary to pay his mortgage and to raise his son (Cameron Bright). Trouble appears in the form of a crusading senator (William H. Macy), an unscrupulous reporter (Katie Holmes) and a disgruntled cigarette icon (Sam Elliott). How far is Nick willing to go to advance his career and how far are those pesky P.C. advocates willing to go to stop him?

Adapting the book by Christopher Buckley, Reitman has written another one of those "people on both sides are foolish" catch-all satires, picking on an even easier target than Alexander Payne's abortion-baiting "Citizen Ruth." Reitman's main villain is our nation's culture of spin, the endless circle of pundits and talk show blather than render all kind of meaningful discourse irrelevant and impossible. Jon Stewart skewers subjects for 22 minutes a night with a lot more savvy.

As the snake oil salesman, Eckhart is sharp and oozes movie star charisma, but Reitman cuts the character too much slack, over-humanizing him at the expense of the satire. The film's best characters are the ones without compromise. Rob Lowe, as an agent trying to work cigarette plugs into his sci-fi epic, has a manic glint in his eye and a wacky kimono in his wardrobe. Maria Bello and David Koechner as alcohol and firearms reps are also amoral in particularly sidesplitting ways.

Reitman's built a movie of flat characters whose failings will be amusing to people on both sides of the political spectrum exactly because they're so simplistic. Is it brave to show politicians bucking for publicity, reporters violating ethics for a story or Hollywood types sacrificing art for commerce? If I hadn't heard identical arguments in "Wag the Dog" or "The Player" or "Dave" (helmed by Reitman's father), it might be fresh.

In high school, whenever I had a boring essay topic, I'd do something out of left field, playing devil's advocate, rather than taking the simple path. Write about an evil historical figure? How about Christopher Columbus for his role in a mass genocide? Write about an American maverick? How about Orson Welles? With "Thank You For Smoking," Reitman has taken the simple path, gone for the easy "A." That's the kind of thing some teachers (and critics) reward, I guess.

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