The team that Smoking Causes Coughing focuses on, Tobacco Force, are Power Ranger expies that use the chemical components of cigarettes but are “heroes” fighting off human-sized rubber monsters. There is no indication these monsters present a threat to anything beyond what the team says, and even kids above 6 shown in the film find their schtick tired and fake. Clearly, they have spent much of their lives doing this, and this alone. It almost seems at times they cannot think of an alternative career. This is the center of the film’s main thematic focus: delusions, and how we trick ourselves.
Both of the women of the team are fighting off delusions of romance with their philandering, green ooze-leaking rat puppet of a boss. The men have delusions of their own, from being a stud, to being a valued team member, the leader himself thinking he’d be better off as a solo act, with the mindset and ego of a 17-year-old boy in the body of a 48-year-old. Even the side stories relish in it, selling it in an absolutely bonkers vignette about an aunt finally bonding to her nephew after he’s essentially been ground down to a mouth in a bucket of chum.
However, the film does not just follow the stories of these characters. During select parts, random characters will share a desire to impart their “scariest story ever.” However, these are often extremely absurdist, and even the gory one is more about dry humor in the face of absurdity. Dupieux’s films still relish using horror to set up an excuse to continue this trend, a habit seen as early as Rubber. The movie will have at least a couple of moments that will have you laughing and saying to yourself: “What the hell am I watching?”
Aside from the displays of delusion, it’s difficult to find a thematic throughline. The film just hops back and forth between the Tobacco Force and the vignettes and it’s difficult to find the artistic point of focus. Is Dupieux commenting on the repetitive nature of superhero programming? Calling it juvenile? Both? The film doesn’t stay on one character or point long enough to say. The Tobacco Force’s costumes are a solid creation, showing enough intentional design to look a good kind of bad yet believable enough to have been seen on a cheap late 90s Saturday morning show. The rest of the set design and FX work sells this as well, creating a goofily loving homage to cheap Saturday AM TV like original Power Rangers runs and Thunderbirds Go!
Smoking Causes Coughing is available to rent and own on digital platforms.