Thank You For Smoking (15)

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The Independent Culture

The debut feature by writer-director Jason Reitman is what passes for biting satire in American cinema these days. It's clever ­ oh, it's damnably clever ­ and like its protagonist, it knows it. Based on a novel by Christopher Buckley, Reitman's film has a magnetically loathsome anti-hero in Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart), lobbyist for the Academy of Tobacco Studies, an institution funded by the US cigarette industry. It's his job to go on TV chat shows and smilingly defend tobacco against its detractors, even when they've lined up a lovable teenager with cancer to win the argument. This unflappably frank, amiable man will slip out a piece of sophistry as gleamingly smooth as his chin, and have the audience eating out of his hand.

Priding himself on representing a despised industry, Nick compares himself to a lawyer defending a child murderer. Someone's got to do it, and he knows he's the best at his job: "It requires a moral flexibility that's beyond most people." His only friends (Maria Bello, David Koechner) are spin doctors for drink and guns, with whom he has an unofficial drinking club, the MOD Squad (Merchants of Death); they argue about whose client causes more deaths and incurs more hostility, and Nick proudly wins hands down.

An episodic narrative sees Nick dispatched by a venerable Southern tobacco baron (an ineffably crusty Robert Duvall) to seduce the film industry into making cigarettes sexy again; a smooth Hollywood monster agent (Rob Lowe in a kimono) proposes to get Brad Pitt and Catherine Zeta-Jones smoking in space. Nick also delivers a suitcase of hush money to silence Sam Elliott's billboard cowboy, "the original Marlboro Man", now suffering from cancer (curiously, while Marlboro is named, Camel is only spoofed, with a glimpse of a poster for "Alpacas").

Nick is a contemporary incumbent of the "Master of the Universe" role once occupied by financial wizards in The Bonfire of the Vanities: but he's more powerful, and more dangerous, because he enables his employers to reach hearts and minds, and lungs. There's nothing he won't say or do, but he has a human side: his vanity causes him to fall for the goo-goo eyes of a seemingly gauche reporter (Katie Holmes); he also has a young son, Joey (Cameron Bright), whom he loves. The boy, however, is largely used as an innocent sounding board for Dad's ideas ­ a shorthand method of setting Nick up as the Devil's own dialectician. We're also made aware how much this devoted father is inevitably corrupting his kid: by the end of the film, Joey, schooled in Dad's strategies, is a school debating champ.

Thank You For Smoking itself has something of the cold glibness of the debating society: Reitman's script is constantly impressing on us its rhetorical confidence and ingenuity, its ability to slickly articulate any outrageous viewpoint whatsoever. The film endlessly flaunts its bracing political incorrectness ­ yet there's nothing terribly bracing, or revelatory, here. We know the tobacco industry is evil, and that lobbyists are amoral technicians of language, so tell us something new, or tell us the familiar differently.

As a director, however, Reitman supports his verbals with a stale panoply of pushy tricks: arch voice-over, comic freeze-frames, elaborate tableau-like visual inserts to illustrate what the dialogue is already telling us. Such tics work brilliantly on TV's Arrested Development, which plays with them to purely gratuitous effect: when they're used here only to make a point, we feel hectored.

Reitman's smartest move is the casting of Aaron Eckhart, whose persona here lies between Denis Leary's wolfishness and the eager-to-please bustle of early Sixties Jack Lemmon. He's backed by a classy supporting cast ­ only Holmes is not remotely credible ­ but the characters themselves are off-the-peg cartoons. One of the film's tricks to make itself seem more brittle is to have Nick's opponents look every bit as corrupt as him: William H Macy's anti-smoking Vermont senator is ineffectual but also callous, berating his aide for not finding a more PR-friendly "cancer boy" ("He should have a wheelchair! He should have a pet goldfish!"). Indeed, Reitman clearly sides with Nick's avowedly self-serving energies over what's presented as hypocritical nannying of the public by the anti-smokers: although Nick is forever cynically touting the mantra of " independent thinking", this is clearly a commodity that a satire can't help endorsing.

Scabrously jaundiced though its outlook is, Thank You For Smoking never seems fuelled by genuine rage: its cynicism is never more than a provocative stance. It comes as no surprise to learn that Reitman is a prize-winning commercials director, whose clients include Heineken, Baskin-Robbins and Burger King, makers of fine health-giving products: I suppose it takes a spin doctor to denounce a spin doctor.

j.romney@independent.co.uk

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