The concept of journalistic balance is premised on the notion that there are two sides to every story, but what happens when one of those sides is wrong? For tobacco lobbyist Aaron Eckhart, the deliciously fatuous hero of Thank You For Smoking, that's never an issue: "The beauty of argument," he says with a grin, "is that if you argue correctly, you're never wrong." Based on Christopher Buckley's satirical novel, the film could apply to many of the issues of the day, from the war in Iraq to illegal wiretapping to Guantanamo—any subject in which the facts are vulnerable to obfuscation. Smoking just happens to be the most pointed example: Cigarettes are proven killers, yet they continue to be made available to consumers, an ongoing phenomenon owed mainly to lobbyists convincing politicians to allow their constituents to be poisoned. In this deeply cynical yet piercing comedy, the truth always runs a distant second to political gamesmanship.
Ideally cast as a smug operator not unlike his character from In The Company Of Men, Eckhart proudly declares himself the face of cigarettes, spinning away on behalf of a lobbying group bankrolled by Big Tobacco. Along with drinking buddies Maria Bello and David Koechner—who represent the alcohol and firearms lobby, respectively—Eckhart styles himself as a "Merchant Of Death" (together, they're "the M.O.D. Squad"), but public contempt ricochets off him. With the industry facing heavy losses in court rulings and a decline in its core users, Eckhart hatches a plan to boost sales by putting cigarettes into Hollywood movies. Over his ex-wife's objections, Eckhart takes his impressionable son (Cameron Bright) out to Los Angeles to see what dad does for a living. Meanwhile, a Washington reporter (Katie Holmes) tries to profile Eckhart for a major newspaper, but the two quickly find ways to compromise the story.
Much like his father Ivan (Ghostbusters), first-time director Jason Reitman has a broad, anything-goes comedic sensibility that allows silly gags and incidental humor to sneak in alongside the satirical barbs. His generosity leads to a memorable gallery of supporting performances: J.K. Simmons as the boorish head of Eckhart's lobbying group, William H. Macy as a strident anti-smoking senator from Vermont, Rob Lowe as a Hollywood super-agent with an Asian fetish, and a scene-stealing Adam Brody as Lowe's motor-mouthed lackey. Not all of the elements come together—the romantic subplot with Holmes comes with an obvious hitch, and the film ends with a shrug—but Thank You For Smoking has an unrelenting energy that never pauses for moral tongue-clucking. Think one look from his son's innocent eyes will convince Eckhart to change his ways? Not a chance.