Refreshingly unpretentious if calculatedly impolitic, Thank You for Smoking is the rare film that stays within itself, mocking its obvious targets with the cool insouciance of mentholated tobacco. Writer and director Jason Reitman evinces surprising maturity for a first-time filmmaker, crafting a witty script from the popular book by Christopher Buckley and eliciting beguiling performances from a multifarious cast. The young Reitman, son of Ivan, manages to be satirical and sentimental simultaneously, a narrative trick that often eludes more experienced helmers, just as his penchant for old-school gimmickry makes the movie feel hip and retro at once.

It helps him that Smoking's storyline is as loose as a cheap cigar, a series of episodes that coalesce to force our hero, Nick Naylor, to confront nagging moral issues. Naylor (Aaron Eckhart), leading lobbyist for Big Tobacco, makes his living defending the rights of smokers and cigarette manufacturers. His chief nemesis, an opportunistic senator from Vermont with the preposterous name of Ortolan Finistirre (William H. Macy), has just announced a campaign to place poison labels on cigarette packages. Naylor's boss, addressed only by the initials BR (played appropriately enough by J.K. Simmons), counters with a pep talk to ramp up industry sales. "Cigarettes are cool, available and addictive," he declaims with exasperation "The job is almost done for us."

As resourceful as he is glib, Naylor proposes a scheme to put sex back into smoke by bribing Hollywood to create new role models for impressionable Americans, something along the lines of Bogart and Bacall. He flies to the West Coast to meet with super-agent Jeff Megall (Rob Lowe), who effortlessly pulls together a multi-million-dollar deal pairing Brad Pitt and Catherine Zeta-Jones with post-coital cigarettes in space-Naylor insisting that Pitt blow smoke rings.

Everything is going in the right direction until Washington's newspaper of record publishes a damaging profile of Naylor written by kittenish reporter Heather Holloway (Katie Holmes), who has used sex to get the goods on Naylor. Fired for his indiscretion, Naylor nevertheless honors a subpoena requiring him to testifying before Finistirre's fact-finding congressional subcommittee-an appearance that requires him to put the big ethical question he has long avoided into his pipe and smoke it.

Reitman wraps these cynical shenanigans around a standard divorced-father-and-estranged-son thumb-sucker that, despite its saccharine elements, allows Naylor to spin his son, Joey, on the rewards of his reviled profession. "That's the beauty of argument," he explains, noting the intellectual as well as financial satisfactions of the lobbying life, "if you argue correctly, you're never wrong."

The movie's plot is pure puffery, but the cameos by Lowe as a Hollywood samurai, along with Robert Duvall as the mint-julep-loving tobacco lord and Sam Elliott as the cancer-stricken Marlboro man, keep the whole business from, er, going up in smoke. Maria Bello and David Koechner also pitch in, so to speak, as Naylor's M.O.D. squad buddies...merchants of death shilling for the alcohol and gun industries.

Having learned his craft directing television commercials, Reitman demonstrates refreshing empathy for these characters-we like Naylor and just about everyone else in the film, whatever their flaws-but he seems anxious that his audience will grow bored unless we're continually stimulated. Thus, he interrupts the story with sight gags meant to illustrate and amuse: the shirt-sleeved Naylor hitting a home run as Eckhart explains in voiceover just how clever he truly is. Mostly, these visuals work, and evoke the spirit of Buckley's book, but inevitably they become tiresome-less is more when being cute.

That said, Steve Saklad and Danny Glicker, production and costume designers respectively, bring value-added humor to Smoking. They have built enough gags into the sets and wardrobes to warrant a return visit to the theatre, and guarantee lots of pauses when the DVD is popped into the player.

-Rex Roberts