Thank You for Smoking (15) <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

Smooth taste of a filtered narrative
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I can't envisage there being a better opening-credits sequence this year than that of Thank You For Smoking, in which the names of cast and crew members are wittily inserted between the sleek horizontals and elegant crests of cigarette packaging. The pastiche has a point, too, tipping us the wink that what we're about to see mixes the slickness and fluency of advertising with a slyly ironic undertow: smoke and mirrors, dead ahead.

Based on Christopher Buckley's chokingly funny novel and adapted for the screen by Jason Reitman (son of Ivan Ghostbusters Reitman), Thank You For Smoking is a likeable but pretty uneven satire on the politics of spin. Its hero, or possibly antihero, is Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart), chief spokesman for the tobacco lobby in Washington - "the Colonel Sanders of nicotine" - who's saddled with the tricky task of defending smokers and cigarette-makers. In America today, that's scarcely a rung above Beelzebub himself, but far from bothering Nick it spurs him on. He loves defending the indefensible, and loves taking on the puritans and health zealots who would deny Americans the freedom of choice, even if that choice is to kill themselves. His latest antagonist, an anti-smoking Senator (William H Macy) who wants to slap a "poison" label on cigarette packs, is a tough nut, but Nick won't let the forces of righteousness have their way just yet.

Whereas Nick could have been a sultan of sleaze, Eckhart plays him as a charismatic chancer who's almost impossible to dislike. Eckhart seems to have borrowed signature characteristics from three of Hollywood's old guard: he has the young Robert Redford's swatch of blond hair, the cleft chin of Kirk Douglas and, most crucially, the confident, mile-wide grin of Jack Nicholson.

It's an irresistible combination, and you can see why the tobacco giants would want this cavalier batting for them. Reitman is lucky to have Eckhart centre-stage, because his relaxed drollery tends to distract from a plot that is basically all over the place.

Some of it plays as a series of skits, such as the regular lunches Nick shares with his fellow spinmasters from the alcohol and firearms lobbies (Maria Bello and David Koechner), a trio who style themselves the MoD squad, as in Merchants of Death. I thought these worked in the book but here they feel somewhat laboured, and keep stalling the narrative rhythm.

So, too, do Nick's encounters with the grizzled ex-Marlboro Man (Sam Elliott) who's being bribed to keep schtum about his recently diagnosed cancer, and with a perfidious journalist (Katie Holmes) who lures Nick into bed. The subplot in which Nick is kidnapped by an anti-smoking group doesn't come off, fudged by the looming emphasis on our hero's relationship with his young son (Cameron Bright), an unsubtle ploy to show the protagonist as a decent dad and therefore an Unarguable Good Guy.

For all its subversive talk the film is more conservative than it thinks. I was hoping that Eckhart might really bare his teeth, as he did some years ago in In the Company of Men, playing a white-collar devil who seduces a deaf secretary just so that he can dump her. Here he's a softie pretending to be a cynic. Only when Nick pays a visit to a Hollywood uber-agent (Rob Lowe) and his terrifyingly insincere PA (Adam Brody) do we pick up an authentic whiff of sulphur.

These days, as Lowe concedes, the only people who smoke on screen are "either psychopaths or Europeans": the best way to enhance the smoker's image would be by sponsoring major movie stars to light up, thus reliving the golden age of cinema when cigarettes were sexy and glamorous. This promising scene goes nowhere, unfortunately, but in Lowe it does reveal a true Mephistopheles at work: the professional who regards the public only as dupes. Thank You For Smoking has its moments, certainly, and the cast is outstanding. But you might find its draw a bit too smooth.