The debut feature from movie-biz scion Jason Reitman (his dad is writer-director-producer Ivan), Thank You for Smoking aspires to the biting satire of Alexander Payne and the dark comedy of the Coen brothers, and gets there more often than not. It's perhaps a little warmer than Payne's pitch-black early efforts (Citizen Ruth, Election) and not as manic as some Coen comedies (Raising Arizona, Fargo), but whatever Reitman loses in sophistication he makes up for in accessibility, turning the story of a potentially reprehensible protagonist into a crowd-pleasing and often hilarious comedy.
That potentially reprehensible lead is tobacco lobbyist Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart), who works for the cigarette industry-financed Institute for Tobacco Studies and travels the world trying to convince people that smoking isn't bad for you. Even though one of the early scenes in the film finds Nick addressing his 11-year-old son's class about not taking their parents' word for it that smoking is harmful, Reitman and Eckhart successfully portray Nick as a fundamentally good guy who's just trying to put his skills to use as best he can. He buddies up with fellow lobbyists from the alcohol and firearms industries, confronts cancer patients on talk shows and ends up sleeping with a perky reporter (Katie Holmes) writing a story about him.
Mostly Nick works on bonding with his son Joey (Cameron Bright), whose mother wants her son far away from the corrupting influences of Nick's profession. Even when humanizing Nick in his many tender scenes with Joey, Reitman never loses the film's satirical edge, and one of the story's centerpieces is a scene in which Nick imparts wisdom to Joey on the fine art of spin.
Reitman's script, from a novel by Christopher Buckley, is whip-smart and very funny, even if its efforts to skewer everyone on both sides of the smoking debate—from fat-cat corporate execs to self-righteous legislators—end up coming off as a little glib. There is also one particularly glaring dropped plot point, but since this is a comedy and not a thriller, it's ultimately forgivable. Eckhart is perfect as Nick, delivering the right mix of smarm and sincerity, and the supporting cast is deep with talent (including Sam Elliott, Rob Lowe, Robert Duvall and Maria Bello in small roles). It's an exceedingly well-crafted package, although at times, like its lead character, it uses flash to cover up its underlying flaws.