MOVIE REVIEW- Cancer shticks: 'Thanks' not as smug as it might be

It's not that Thank You for Smoking isn't resoundingly entertaining, it just happens to have tremendous educational value. You'll learn as much about debate and manipulation in an hour and a half as you would from a year of law school. Journalism students will get a lesson in ethics from Katie Holmes' character (by negative example), who gives new meaning to the term "media whore."

Smokers will learn some of the lengths the tobacco companies go to keep them puffing away, the last legal form of assisted suicide. And everyone involved with Date Movie and the Scary Movies can learn what a satire really is and stop using the term incorrectly to describe their juvenile contrivances.

Hopefully, the show business adage, "Satire is what closes on Saturday night" won't apply to Thank You for Smoking.

Aaron Eckhart shines as Nick Naylor, the slickest of the slick and point man for the tobacco lobby. Officially, he works under BR (J.K. Simmons) in the euphemistically named Academy of Tobacco Studies, which employs a German scientist who "could disprove gravity."

Nick meets regularly for drinks with his counterparts in the alcohol (Maria Bello) and firearms (David Koechner) industries. They refer to themselves as "The M.O.D. Squad," M.O.D. standing for Merchants of Death.

Nick's nemesis is Senator Ortolan Finistirre (D-VT) (William H. Macy), who is campaigning for "Poison" labels on cigarette packs and arranges for "cancer kids" to confront Nick on daytime talk shows. None of this fazes Nick. "You remember the guy who could pick up any girl?" he tells us. "I'm him– on crack."

Joey (Cameron Bright), Nick's 12-year-old son, spends most of his time with his mother (Kim Dickens) and her boyfriend, but learns more from his dad about important things like how to BS his way through a paper for school. ("If you argue correctly, you're never wrong.")

A visit to Hollywood, where Nick conspires with superagent Rob Lowe to get cigarettes back in movies (other than in the hands of psychopaths and Europeans) gives Joey a view of the world few kids ever see. Lowe suggests a picture that's set in the future, "after the health thing has blown over," with Brad Pitt and Catherine Zeta-Jones lighting up after sex, and the introduction of a new tie-in brand when the movie opens.

(Trivia Note: With Running Scared, this gives Cameron Bright two films in six weeks that contain clips from old John Wayne movies. What are the odds?!!!)

When things couldn't seem to get any better for Nick, he endears himself to The Captain (Robert Duvall), the Grand Old Man of the tobacco industry, and gets to ride in his private jet. ("You're family now. Tobacco takes care of its own.") He also gets to deliver a bribe to the terminally ill "original Marlboro Man" (Sam Elliott).

Of course it wouldn't be a movie if a few little things didn't go wrong, but I'll let you find out about those for yourself. I'd give away more great dialogue, but I actually ran out of ink just trying to write down the highlights.

Maybe it was Macy's presence, but I felt a vibe similar to that of State & Main, and would especially recommend Thank You for Smoking to fans of that film.

If you demand pedigree, this is the first feature for writer-director Jason Reitman, son of Ivan Reitman, after some well-received shorts. He's made his daddy proud.

Big Tobacco is an easy target, and Thank You for Smoking isn't as vicious as it might have been, nor is it smug and self-congratulatory about the points it scores. For every outrageous invention in the film, the industry has done something just as outrageous– probably twice as outrageous– in real life.