Meet Robin - a 15-year-old 'cancer boy', with shaven chemo-scalp, plonked on TV as a shock/sympathy figurehead for the anti-smoking league. "It's in our best interests to keep Robin alive and smoking," claims pro-smoking lobbyist Naylor. The crowd hisses. "The anti-smoking people want Robin to die," he continues. And the crowd pauses, edging towards his view.
Sure, Naylor is the biggest killer (1,200 deaths a day) in his MOD (Merchants Of Death) squad of alcohol, firearms and tobacco pals, but with arguments like that, he's proof that "when you argue correctly, you're never wrong."
Much like Lord Of War, Smoking finds light in the darkest of trades; people happy to engage in morally "flexible" pursuits for their own financial and intellectual gain. However, unlike Nic Cage's gun-runner, Eckhart's antihero is admirable, human - defending millions of US smokers from buffoons such as Macy's smarmy, spiteful, opportunistic senator while, above all, like any regular guy, looking out for his teenage son. When everyone from Katie Holmes' sex-for-a-story reporter to Naylor's devious boss BR (JK Simmons) are 2-D rogues, it's the smiling smoking-spinner who comes out smelling of roses.
However, despite moments of real invective, Jason Reitman's film always has its filter firmly in place; opting for safety rather than actual bile. Packed with name actors, the script moves so fast through its numerous targets (tobacco, guns, liberals, rednecks) that no one's left seriously burned. An array of exciting subplots (product-placing cigarettes in movies with the excellent Rob Lowe and The OC's Adam Brody; bribery; kidnapping; journalistic integrity; congressional hearing... Phew!) that are stubbed out before they really start to kick, Smoking is a low-tar, high-nicotine drag - hooking you from the off with its Fight Club-y freeze frames, but settling in the end for an entertaining flirt around its subjects.
Still, with our mollycoddling governments forcing our cigarettes out, Reitman is fighting absurdity with absurdity. He sees smoking, like boozing and driving, as just another everyday pastime that can kill but more often than not doesn't - it's just an easier political target. Smoking reminds us that this vilified industry is actually (shock!) run by average folk doing what they're best at to pay the mortgage. And, when you compare Finistirre's barking that 'cancer boy' "should've been more pathetic, maybe in a wheelchair" with Naylor's passionate, "I'm Joey's father. You're just the guy fucking his mom" dismissal of his ex-wife's interfering new man, you realise that it's the pro-smoking lobbyist who hasn't lost sight of what really matters.
Reitman's breathless debut is not as daring as it could've been, but remains funny, frantic and sharp throughout. Suck on it and see...