A dark comedy goes up in smoke

'Thank You For Smoking' skewers the spin doctors from Big Tobacco.

As Nick Naylor, the chief lobbyist for Big Tobacco in "Thank You For Smoking," Aaron Eckhart has a wily roguishness. He loves being hated - it means he's doing his job.

Routinely referred to in the press as the "yuppie Mephistopheles" and "the Colonel Sanders of Nicotine," he is never more in his element than when he's debating antismoking zealots. He does such an expert job of spinning that he leaves his riled antagonists, including William H. Macy's Senator Ortolan Finistirre, looking like cartoon characters with steam shooting out of their ears. Naylor's goal is to fight off the senator's proposal to affix a skull and crossbones on every cigarette pack.

It might not seem possible to make a satirical comedy about something as unfunny as the depredations of Big Tobacco. Of course, Christopher Buckley's 1994 novel of the same name proved it can be done. The movie that writer-director Jason Reitman has made from it has many sharp satiric moments, mostly bunched up toward the middle, but suffers from a lack of verve and ambition.

This is Reitman's first feature - his father is Ivan Reitman, the director of "Meatballs" and the "Ghostbuster" movies - and he doesn't yet have the skills to build a comedy. The jokes keep plunking into place, but it's all hit or miss, without any rhythm or charge. What it needed was someone like Naylor to direct it - a dynamo who never looks back.

Still, there is much to like in this movie, particularly the way it skewers the spin culture - although that skewering is sometimes indistinguishable from celebration. In a world of flash and spin on all sides, Reitman pins a medal on Naylor for being the lowest of the low. This attitude is, to put it mildly, morally bankrupt, but then again, so is the world of this movie. Just about everyone in it - even the dying Marlboro Man (Sam Elliott), who threatens to take his anti-tobacco lament public - can be bought.

The satire gets a bit far afield when Reitman brings Hollywood into the picture. Rob Lowe's mega-agent, who negotiates with Naylor to put cigarette product placements in an outer space epic, is a familiar, if well-played, target. (He lives in faux Japanese splendor and favors a sushi restaurant in which all the foods served are white). There's also a cameo from Robert Duvall as a tobacco baron that looks like it was a bit too easy to perform.

"Thank You For Smoking" is snarky and enjoyable, but it could have been a ferocious black comedy. No Thank You For Playing It Safe. Grade: B

Rated R for language and some sexual content.

Sex/Nudity: 7 scenes of innuendo, including one with implied sex; 1 montage of sex scenes. Violence: 4 scenes. Profanity: 61 instances, including 26 harsh. Drugs/Alcohol/Tobacco: 9 scenes of drinking, 1 of smoking.

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