A marvel of perfect casting, crisp dialogue and biting wit, "Thank You for Smoking" is the first truly must-see, laugh out loud comedy of the year.
In his first feature, based on the novel by Christopher Buckley, writer-director Jason Reitman skewers Washington politicians, journalists, the entertainment business and everyone in between.
And yet, this story of a tobacco industry spinmaster (played with bravado and boy-next-door charm by Aaron Eckhart) and the son who worships him (Cameron Bright) is sort of sweet without trying hard to be.
There's not much in terms of plot or narrative drive, and after starting out strong it loses a bit of steam, but there's enough energy and ingenuity here that we probably won't be thinking Reitman as son-of-Ivan for much longer.
Certainly having a father who directed such classic comedies as "Stripes," "Ghostbusters" and "Dave" couldn't have hurt. The younger Reitman has been around movie sets his entire life. But comparing the two would be a mistake; Jason Reitman clearly has a vision and sensibility all his own.
He comes out swinging as he introduces us to Nick Naylor, Big Tobacco's PR guru, a man who can take any negative and turn it into a positive with just his winning smile and a clever argument.
"You know that guy who can pick up any girl?" he asks in a voiceover during the film's rapid-fire beginning. "I'm him. On crack."
Under scrutiny from a self-righteous Vermont senator (William H. Macy) and an ambitious, young reporter (Katie Holmes), just as health advocates continue their anti-smoking crusade, Nick comes up with an idea to promote cigarette use in films.
His logic: "These days, when somebody smokes in a movie, they're either a psychopath or European." Getting Brad Pitt or Catherine Zeta-Jones to light up would be much better for sales - but he needs help from someone on the inside.
When you think of someone pretty and suave to play the most powerful agent in Hollywood, only a few names come to mind. Rob Lowe is one of them, and he's ideal as the Zen-minded yet completely ostentatious Jeff Megall, who agrees to help Nick with his plan. (Adam Brody from "The O.C," though, nearly steals his thunder in one absurdly hilarious sequence as Lowe's flippant assistant.)
Still, what Nick represents isn't politically correct. Thankfully, he's buddies with the people who lobby for the alcohol and firearms industries (Maria Bello and David Koechner, also excellent fits). Together they call themselves the M.O.D. Squad - for Merchants of Death - and their cynical, Scotch-soaked lunches are so rivetingly funny, they make you want to pull up a chair and join them.
Regardless of how he's perceived or how much trouble he gets himself in and out of, Nick remains a hero to his son, Joey, who's only too happy to tag along on Nick's political adventures. As he did opposite Nicole Kidman in "Birth," the big-eyed Bright again shows he can believably play a character who's wise beyond his years, and holds his own among veteran actors.
All these elements and subplots, though, seem to get mangled together as the film hurtles toward its conclusion. Reitman has a good thing going for a while, but it feels at times as if he's on the verge of losing control, letting the pace slack at times and neglecting characters we'd like to see again.
But the fact that you want to see Nick succeed - to fend off every attack and destroy every enemy - is a testament both to how well the character is drawn and to how well Eckhart plays him. All that time he spent making Neil LaBute films ("In the Company of Men," "Your Friends & Neighbors," "Nurse Betty") must served as a master course in working with darkly humorous material.
Eckhart essentially gets you to root for the devil, and feel good about doing it.
"Thank You for Smoking," a Fox Searchlight Pictures release, is rated R for language and some sexual content. Running time: 92 minutes. Three stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:
G - General audiences. All ages admitted.
PG - Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
PG-13 - Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.
R - Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
NC-17 - No one under 17 admitted.