Some people labor under the delusion that happiness is mankind’s natural state of being. But happiness has never been our birthright; anger, sadness, and death are our birthrights. Sleepless nights and haunted days are our birthrights. Heartbreak, anxiety, and self-doubt are our birthrights. Death, decay, mourning, failure, and rejection are our birthrights. Happiness is more like a pleasant surprise we get every once in a while, like a rainbow. Or a blowjob.
Yet in the insane days of the New Economy Bubble, it looked like permanent happiness forever was just around the corner. A soaring stock market and the exponential growth of the Internet would make millionaires out of everyone. Viagra would cure impotence and extend virility far longer than nature and common decency deigned possible or desirable. Rogaine and Propecia would make baldness a thing of the past. Prozac, Paxil, and Zoloft would cure depression and anxiety. Technology would revolutionize our lives. Everything we ever wanted would be available at the click of a mouse.
Pharmaceutical companies and cyber-entrepreneurs were leading the way to a shimmering new utopia where all our problems could be solved by a pill or a website. Or a website peddling pills. Nobody wanted to ruin the party by pointing out that the New Economy was built on a slippery foundation of delusions, mania, and blind optimism.
This is the world lampooned by1996’s Kids In The Hall: Brain Candy, today’s entry in My Year Of Flops. The film inspired mixed responses even among the Kids themselves; it was an instant cult movie that doesn’t seem to have inspired much of a cult. Instead of marking the beginning of The Kids In The Hall’s film career, it was a dead end, in part because Dave Foley, the most popular and successful Kid, quit the troupe halfway through the writing of Brain Candy, yet was contractually obligated to appear in it all the same.
If he hadn’t quit the group, Foley probably would have played the lead character in Brain Candy instead of Kevin McDonald. McDonald does a fine job, but the film’s commercial prospects would have improved with Foley in the role. He’s handsome and appealing, and he was, at the time, headlining the well-liked network show NewsRadio. McDonald, by contrast, wears a heavy air of sadness and desperation like a second skin. (Even though Foley was the one who appeared naked in a Uwe Boll movie years later. If that doesn’t say sad and desperate, I don’t know what does.)
Brain Candy is a wounded beast of a movie. The Kids only began writing it after getting a movie deal, so the deal spurred the script, not the other way around. It was edited heavily following test screenings, it caused bitter schisms between the Kids and Paramount over the Cancer Boy character and the almost unbearably bleak original ending, and it limped onto screens with virtually no publicity support, to largely negative reviews and paltry box-office. True, it was nominated for four Genies, Canada’s version of the Academy Awards, but its only other competition that year was a documentary about elk.
The film begins by laying out a rich tapestry of misery and despair. Everybody hurts and has hurt feelings, in the manner documented in the R.E.M. and Flight Of The Conchords songs “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?” and “Sugalumps.” Scott Thompson plays an oblivious father and husband whose homosexuality is the world’s worst-kept secret. He spends his nights masturbating furiously to gay porn while his irritated children watch TV downstairs. Meanwhile, Bruce McCulloch, playing a glowering rock star with Glenn Danzig/Wolverine hair, presides over a legion of glowering depressives. A grandmother (Thompson again) is lazily patronized by her hateful ingrate of a son. As a gloomy German moans upon learning that his psychiatrist doesn’t speak German, “The nipples of Mother Hope have run dry.”
Ah, but a cure for society-wide ennui is being developed by a plucky group of scientists at the monolithic Roritor Company, led by kooky-haired Kevin McDonald. The wonder drug, which will eventually be called Gleemonex, lets users return permanently to their happiest memory. In this clip, the scientists test the pill on Thompson-as-grandma:
This clip illustrates the essence of black comedy: It would be unbearably sad if it weren’t funny. The filmmakers create a sour, hermetic world within a tiny little flashback, a universe whose all-consuming sadness and disappointment suggests the miserablist realm of Todd Solondz. Thompson and Foley underplay the scene beautifully, Thompson as the kind of long-suffering matriarch who expects almost nothing from the world and fails to receive even that, and Foley as a man intent on being a huge asshole in the tersest manner imaginable.
It’s one of the film’s most resonant running jokes that the memories conjured up by Gleemonex are laughably mundane, tiny little morsels of okayness in a vast sea of misery. McDonald wants to test the drug extensively, but when he sees his colleagues being ejected from the building—without even their beloved test monkeys to keep them company—he decides to spill the beans about his miracle discovery.
Besides, McDonald’s happiness pill beats the hell out of competing projects in development, like “a pill that gives worms to ex-girlfriends,” and a pill that’s just like the pill that made Roritor’s fortune, only much bigger, and more likely to cause birth defects that leave babies with flippers for limbs. If you like jokes about flipper-babies and cancer-stricken children, then Brain Candy is for you. It’s candy-coated and zippily directed, with some of the bleakest gags ever seen in a mainstream studio comedy, like this unbelievably dark bit about the fate of McDonald’s dad. Most comedies would treat this as a brisk throwaway gag, but Brain Candy sadistically drags it out as long as possible, not unlike the dad’s suicide:
Gleemonex’s success transforms its inventor into an instant superstar. McDonald is the film’s emotional center and straight man, yet his transformation from geeky everyman to obnoxious über-celebrity to impassioned crusader feels abrupt and unearned. Brain Candy is at its weakest when attending to the needs of its plot, and at its best when it’s chasing weird comic conceits down dark alleys, like this bit involving the controversial fan favorite Cancer Boy:
Gleemonex’s ubiquity as an over-the-counter cure-all transforms society. In this clip, McCulloch’s gloomy rocker introduces a whole new post-Gleemonex lifestyle, sound, and vibe, while McDonald’s doctor acclimates himself to the ridiculousness of life on the A-list.
Ah, but third-act troubles loom just around the corner, as Gleemonex has an unfortunate habit of putting its users into permanent comas. Roritor begins building “comatoriums” and offers the families of Gleemonex victims $10,000 to ignore its unfortunate side effects. After discovering the Gleemonex comas, McDonald rebels against his employers, to no avail. Brain Candy stumbles in its last half hour, but it’s easy to admire the audacity of a comedy whose happy ending involves scientists selflessly giving the gift of misery back to humanity.
Brain Candy captures something ineffable about the go-go ’90s. I particularly enjoyed a scene where the head of Roritor (Mark McKinney, in a performance very overtly modeled—like Mike Myers’ Dr. Evil—on the aristocratic aloofness of Brain Candy producer Lorne Michaels) leads McDonald from a swank party through a corridor, and then finally to a pool where the “real party” is happening. In the heyday of the Clinton era, there were doors and parties and grotesque orgies of wealth and decadence far beyond the reach of everyone but the masters of the universe. There were hierarchies within hierarchies.
The Kids In The Hall’s ill-fated debut feature is closer in conception, ambition, and scope to Monty Python movies like Life Of Brian and Monty Python And The Holy Grail than the Saturday Night Live movies being churned out at the time by SNL Studios. Like Idiocracy,it’s less about a character or a set of characters than society as a whole. Movies like that invariably overreach. Brain Candy sets its comedic sights on just about everything: smug advertising executives, inane talk shows, corporate greed, the overmedication of society, fads, miracle drugs, yes-men, and creepy cab drivers who freak out customers with elaborate discussions of animal pornography, grunge, and the quiet desperation of the common man. It also has lines like these:
Thompson’s grandmother on how Gleemonex makes her feel: “Like a fresh towel drying on the line on a summer’s day.”
“This urine is great!”
“I don’t care what happens to me. Just let me take my monkeys!”
“It was only a couple of flipper-babies!”
“I haven’t felt this good since they said it was not malignant.”
“I was driving around last night in my $62,000 car when suddenly it hit me!”
“Then Jesus, I mean Dr. Cooper, gave me this drug.”
“Wow. That’s a lot of money. How pleasing.”
“They’re coming from a man who has gone mad with depression. It happens to some of our greatest geniuses. Oppenheimer, Schweitzer, Boxcar Willie.”
“We just depressed one old lady. We’ve got a whole world to bum out!”
Like a goofier Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, Brain Candy ultimately argues that without the bad in life, the good wouldn’t matter, that pain and pleasure and happiness and despair are so inextricably, purposefully intertwined that they become meaningless without one another. To remove suffering and pain from the human equation is to remove much of what makes us human.
I wish the film had made its points a little more artfully and implicitly, rather than simply sticking them in McDonald and McKinney’s mouths, but Brain Candy has an overarching satirical vision that makes it much more than just an assemblage of mostly funny running gags and stand-alone bits. That theme is conveyed succinctly, though crudely, by McKinney’s cantankerous cab driver when he sings the following ditty from his home country: “Life is short. Life is shit, and soon it will be over.”
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Secret Success
Up next in Canadian Comedy Month: Canadian Bacon