Thank You For Smoking provides a gentle critique of sponsored science and a few good belly laughs.

Aaron Eckhart as Nick Naylor. Credit: Dale Robinette. TM and © Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

There are two sides to every issue: Should the government increase spending on programs like welfare or funding for the arts, or should it cut taxes, letting the citizenry decide where its earnings belong? Does evolution reasonably account for the origin of species or do we need invoke an intelligent hand to fill in its holes? Does smoking sharply increase your chance of getting lung cancer, or is the statistic that 87% of lung cancer cases are caused by smoking based on a series of unfortunate coincidences? The Academy of Tobacco Studies, a fictional research institute in the surreal world of Thank You for Smoking, inundates America’s children with the pro-smoking side of the tobacco controversy, all in an effort to let the consumer make up his or her own mind. And unless you want to discourage critical thinking in our youth, you best be on their side.

So goes the beguilingly charming rhetoric of ace lobbyist Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart), the protagonist and anti-hero at the center of this whip-smart social satire. Nick is the Academy’s not-so-secret weapon, dispatched to conceive of and convey the merits of cigarettes to teens and policy-makers alike. And he does so with unshakeable confidence, until the seductive reporter Heather Holloway (Katie Holmes) sleeps her way through his defenses and exposes his and the tobacco industry’s tactics in the pages of the aptly named Washington Probe.

The film was directed and adapted for the screen by Jason Reitman—son of comedic director Ivan Reitman—from the book by Christopher Buckley and does not direct its gibes specifically at tobacco, but instead skillfully explores the current state of political discourse and the importance of public appearance.

“That’s the beauty of argument,” Naylor tells his impressionable young son. “If you argue correctly, you’re never wrong.”

From behind his winning smile, Nick questions the credentials of a non-medically accredited mother who tells her daughter not to smoke. He takes control of a talk show witch hunt where he’s the intended prey. And to top it all off, he deftly rebukes a Vermont politician out for blood for ignoring America’s number one killer (heart disease) to bash cigarettes—merely a second-tier assassin. Much like the ontological argument for God’s existence—I can conceive of a superior being; one trait of a superior being would be existence; therefore, God exists—Nick’s twisted logic is always so fluid, you know it has to be wrong.

Allegorically, the Academy of Tobacco Studies bears an uncanny resemblance to the Discovery Institute: It talks a big game about scientific research but doesn’t produce any results—save the shaky claim that smoking might help alleviate Parkinson’s disease. Instead, science is used as a pretense for an elaborate social agenda, one that makes it necessary to hire a scientist with a knack for replicating the same inconclusive link between smoking and cancer in rats. It’s as if lung cancer were climate change and secondhand smoke were fossil fuel emissions. In fact, the revered tobacco kingpin Captain (Robert Duvall), a sort of father figure to Nick, is just a white cowboy hat and bolo tie away from being an oil tycoon.

While it bills itself as a dark comedy, Thank You for Smoking pokes and mocks with such grace that even when Nick brags to his lunch crew—comprised of an alcohol lobbyist (the excellent Maria Bello) and a firearms lobbyist (David Koechner)—that his product kills more than theirs by several orders of magnitude, the laughs are fast and light. After Nick gets his comeuppance, the Buckley novel takes a more serious and moralistic turn, as Nick begins to lobby against the product that made him a star. The movie, however, keeping things loose and not kowtowing to moralism in its plot devices, hails Nick’s triumphant rebirth and expansion into marketing the killers of the future.

Ultimately the film is more of a laugh-out-loud romp—less than powerful, sure to fade from the public consciousness in weeks, if not months. It is at worst a triple length episode of “The Colbert Report,” a fun, shockingly un-self-righteous jab at lobbyists, politicians and the people who take them far too seriously.

Maria Bello, David Koechner and Aaron Eckhart as the M.O.D. (Ministers of Death) Squad. Credit: Dale Robinette. TM and © Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

Originally published March 28, 2006

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