COMMENTING ON AN AMERICAN FILM FROM 2005
For the first five minutes of this film, I laughed continuously. I had great fun seeing that not only did the film ridicule the protagonist – a tobacco lobbyist, who was, of course, corrupt, and presented as corrupt in a funny way. But the filmmakers also had the courage to present the opposite side of the political devide as just as corrupt. A certain senator, who strongly opposed the tobacco industry, was also “corrupt”. When campaigning against the tobacco industry, he was just as dishonest and manipulative as the lobbyist.
I thought this would be a great film to see!
But it wasn’t. After the first five minutes, my heart sank. I found the film somewhat entertaining, but not “funny”. (I’ll come back to that.) Because the film at the outset seemed courageous, I had hoped for development, a story and meaning. But this film was just a series of jokes, sometimes at the expense of the tobacco industry, sometimes at the expense of corrupt politics.
But let us take a closer look at the difference between entertainment and the other form of humour, which I spontaneously called “funny” above. I will now use the term “comedy” for the latter.
A comedy will then be a film which is entertaining on a deeper level. What brings depth to a comedy? I think it’s a bit of a paradox. I think that real comedy rests on some sort of underlying seriousness.
At the end of the film the lobbyist abandons his job for the tobacco industry. This, however, is not a result of a long-fought dilemma or some other development we have seen throughout the film. It just happens! And, as if to make sure that nobody thinks the film is in any way serious, the protagonist takes up a new job as lobbyist for cell phones (as they were called in 2005). He is now telling people that there is no health risk related to those phones (which was a concern at the time).
To be fair, I should add that the film’s cast includes a boy, some 12-13 years old. He is the son of the lobbyist. The boy also has a mother. We can see both mother and son as basically uncorrupted, and a possible counterweight to the lobbyist. But mother + son are not serious! They do not stage a moral fight against the father, and we do not see any corresponding internal battle inside him between his good and bad tendencies.
A good film could have given us the battle – or some other meaningful story. It could be in the form of a comedy or in the form of a serious film. Moreover, a good film would have shown the battle (or some other meaningful story) in an interesting way bringing new insights and concrete examples which we did not think of before (or reminders that we needed). But “Thank you for smoking” does not even try! What we get is only a bunch of fragments. We see a corrupt lobbyist and a corrupt politician against a flickering background of uncorrupted mother + son.
Sometimes little sparks of energy flies between the two “poles” – between corrupted and not. When the new co-habitant of the mother (mother and father are divorced, of course) tries to intervene in the protagonist’s dealing with his son, the father tells him that he is just the guy who screws his former wife – ha, ha! But these sparks, and other fragments, do not add up to a story.
Do we need, generally speaking, sheer entertainment? I guess we do. Soldiers on leave from war may need sheer entertainment. Hard-working people having jobs in companies or institutions of some importance may prefer sheer entertainment when they come home from work. But I am not quite sure that “Thank you for smoking” fulfils even this need in an honest way. For sheer entertainment, I believe, the film is too close to serious matters without being serious.
That is why I write this review. The film is apt to break down useful distinctions between different ways of dealing with things. I think we should be aware of this, otherwise we risk sliding into “Nacht und Nebel” as they say in German – darkness and fog.