"Thank You for Smoking": It's ... Tobacco Man

The handsome Aaron Eckhart has a face that looks as if a computer designed it. The individual pieces are all a bit much, but the overall effect works surprisingly well; it's over-the-top but believable, like good satire. His jaw is absurdly square, his nose long and aristocratic, his eyes are small but glitter intelligently.

He's just the face to sell a slightly iffy proposition — and he's perfectly cast in Jason Reitman's clever satire "Thank You for Smoking" as tobacco lobbyist Nick Naylor, a man who wouldn't dream of apologizing for what he does for a living. Defending tobacco, he notes proudly to his young son, requires "a moral flexibility that's beyond most people."

Reitman's movie, based on the novel by Christopher Buckley, is snappy and bright; it clicks as smoothly as an expensive cigarette lighter. While it's full of funny one-liners — many of which have, alas, already been featured ad infinitum in the movie's trailer — the film finds much of its humor in its rich assortment of characters. With the exception of Katie Holmes, less than believable as a hotshot journalist (after playing a less-than-believable hotshot lawyer in "Batman Begins," is she making a tour of all the professions?), all are perfectly cast, giving the movie a nicely populated feel.

William H. Macy plays Nick's nemesis, a Birkenstock-wearing anti-smoking senator from Vermont who's determined to bring down tobacco. In his office, filled with bottles of maple syrup, he plots the enemy's downfall; you can see a sort of wild-eyed frustration in him, as if he can't believe that what he's doing is even necessary. Robert Duvall purrs smoothly as mysterious tobacco giant The Captain; Rob Lowe is blissfully slick as a Hollywood superagent happy to work with Nick on bringing more tobacco to the movies, even sci-fi. (Cigarettes in space? It's "the final frontier.")

J.K. Simmons employs his trademark — and very funny — yell-it-out-fast delivery as Nick's boss at the Academy of Tobacco Studies. And Maria Bello and David Koechner bring world-weary deadpan to the roles of Nick's best buddies — lobbyists for alcohol and guns, respectively. They are the MoD Squad, the Merchants of Death, and over drinks they regularly engage in good-natured competition as to how many deaths their clients have caused.

But this is Eckhart's movie, and his Nick preens in the spotlight; a man who's learned to make a living from his own firm yet flexible convictions. "Thank You for Smoking" is a rarity in movies these days: a film cheerfully taking on a controversial issue (note, though, that nobody in this film ever actually smokes) and sending up both sides. It's a gleeful exploration not so much of smoke but of spin.

Reitman, still in his 20s, knows something that many more seasoned directors never figure out: how to make audiences laugh along with a film that's laughing at itself. (And that's laughing at us — particularly in a devilish final scene.) We may not need "Thank You for Smoking" to snicker at lobbyists, but it's a welcome gift anyway.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Aaron Eckhart plays a morally flexible lobbyist. (DALE ROBINETTE)
William H. Macy is part of the fine cast.
Movie review 3.5 stars

Showtimes and trailer

"Thank You for Smoking," with Aaron Eckhart, Maria Bello, Cameron Bright, Adam Brody, Sam Elliott, Katie Holmes, David Koechner, Rob Lowe, William H. Macy, J.K. Simmons, Robert Duvall. Written and directed by Jason Reitman, based on the novel by Christopher Buckley. 92 minutes. Rated R for language and some sexual content. Pacific Place, Guild 45th.