Samelessly, even gleefully un-PC, Thank You for Smoking coughs up enough cancerous bile to tar anyone who unwisely approaches it with idealistic conviction. That could be the highest form of praise; you’ll have to stretch back to 1997’s ultracynical Wag the Dog to find a sociopolitical satire as vituperative and downright exhilarating in its exposure of the Beltway image machine, here personified by the chummy “merchants of death,” well-dressed mouthpieces for the tobacco, alcohol and firearms industries.
Unlike David Mamet, Wag the Dog’scloset liberal, Smoking’s original novelist Christopher Buckley plays for the small-l libertarian team, an affiliation that makes for even sharper caricature. Buckley’s hero, a Big Tobacco lobbyist named Nick Naylor(the expertly cast Eckhart, one of the slimeballs from In the Company of Men), has little room for scruples, preferring instead to see his opponents as juicy steaks for the chomping. They include a righteous Birkenstock-clad Vermont senator (Macy), a bitter formerMarlboro man ready to sue over his declining health (Sam Elliott) and a seductive journalist (Katie Holmes, the film’s weakest link).
All fall to Naylor’s persuasive chatter but his ultimate target—the movie’s most provocative—isn’t a victim at all, but his own prepubescent son, Joey (Bright), learning about the joys of morally untethered debate. Asking his dad for help on a school essay (“Why Is America’s Government the Best?”), Pop responds, “Because of our endless appeals system.” Inspiration strikes. To watch Eckhart’s proud smile is to see the new face of family values. (Opens Fri; see Index for venues. See also “Of vice and men,” page 32.)—Joshua Rothkopf