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Huffing about Puffing

"Thank You for Smoking" is serious satire, but it's no drag.

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Not that Jason Reitman's feature debut really shows us how that feels. With jaunty music, freeze frames on just-introduced characters, and even a cartoon or two there's little danger of taking Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart) or his job too seriously. Not that Nick doesn't: When Nick goes to a school — St. Euthanasius — to give a talk about what he does, he answers a little girl's questions about her mother's assertion that cigarettes are bad by throwing questions back at her about whether her mother is a doctor or scientist: "Well, she doesn't sound like a credible expert, does she?" Nick urges the pupils not to take anyone else's word on a subject: "Challenge authority! Find out for yourselves!" Even the teacher seems momentarily convinced.

Nick is so chipper and oily that he even triumphs on an "Oprah" episode featuring a 15-year-old lung-cancer patient. His son, Joey (Cameron Bright), asks questions about Dad's dubious propaganda, but Nick answers simply, "If you argue correctly, you're never wrong." Still, the numbers are going down, and Nick's tantrum-throwing boss, BR (J.K. Simmons), has to get his people together to come up with a new strategy to sell smokes. Everyone's silent. "We sell cigarettes!" BR bellows. "And they're cool, and available, and addictive. The job is almost done for us!" Nick finally suggests campaigning Hollywood to get actors smoking on-screen again, and he's off to Los Angeles to get a movie made.

The tobacco industry isn't the only target here. The press, particularly a "Washington Probe" reporter (Katie Holmes), takes a punch, too. So do the two friends Nick has regular steakhouse drinking sessions with, mouthpieces for the alcohol and firearms industries (Maria Bello and David Koechner). The three refer to themselves as the MOD Squad — for "Merchants of Death." They like to discuss who's in the most difficult position to spin the uproar du jour.

Reitman gets the dialogue and tone just right, and the performances are spot-on, too. Eckhart's Nick is too personable to hate, Simmons is a terrific hardass, and even Robert Duvall gives his first unembarrassing turn in quite a while as a Southern tobacco patriarch. William H. Macy also makes an appearance as a flustered senator who's out to hang Nick but never quite succeeds — especially after the tobacco lobbyist argues that the senator's territory dishes out unhealthy fare, as well. ("The great state of Vermont will not apologize for its cheese!" Macy's official stammers.) Eckhart and Bright also play the ridiculous father-son bonding scenes — one occurs on a road trip during which both of them agree that they would take a bribe if it were large enough — with an assured wink.

It's all in fun, but obviously there's a message here — one of the many messages of the much more somber "V for Vendetta," in fact: You can't trust anything or anybody, because even the worst of situations can be spun to look golden. The fact that there's a doctor who can back up Nick's slick sell with data says it all: "This man," Nick says, "could disprove gravity." (R) 92 mins. **** S

This review first appeared in the Washington City Paper.

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