Kids in the Hall: Brain Candy (1996) / Comedy
MPAA Rated: R for language, brief nudity, drug content, and sexual humor
Running Time: 89 min.
Cast: Mark McKinney, Bruce McCulloch, Kevin McDonald, Scott Thompson, Dave Foley
Small role: Brendan Fraser, Janine Garofalo
Director: Kelly Makin
Screenplay: Norm Hiscock, Bruce McCulloch, Kevin McDonald, Mark McKinney, Scott Thompson
Review published June 20, 2017
Canadian comedy team, Kids in the Hall, get their own film, launching from the first run of their hit sketch-comedy TV series, just after their fifth and final season. Just like their show, the major roles are all played by the five-man troupe, no matter the gender or age (a la Monty Python), written by four of the five members while Dave Foley (Monkeybone) had quit in order to join the NBC network comedy, "NewsRadio" ("Kids in the Hall" head writer Norm Hiscock ("Parks and Recreation") chips in with some of the comedy).
Though their show had a more scattershot approach, Brain Candy actually has a narrative to follow, dealing with a drug company, Roritor Pharmaceuticals, that is in need of a hit wonder drug, launching a new and mostly untested antidepressant they call Gleemonex, which promises to locks its patient into the sensation of reliving their happiest memory. The new drug quickly becomes the number one on the market (even more popular than penicillin), as we follow several people who use the product, as well as the drug's inventor (McDonald, Lilo & Stitch), and the CEO (McKinney (A Night at the Roxbury) riffing on Brain Candy's producer Lorne Michaels) and board members of Roritor as they deal with the overnight success of their product.
Brain Candy is directed by Kelly Makin (Mickey Blue Eyes, I Do (But I Don't)), with a sense of stylish camera movements, lavish set designs, and a few rudimentary effects shots to give it a visual flair. It's as absurd as you'd expect from the quintet, with touches of the surreal, but the satirical takes on corporate greed, andthe rampant desire for a chemical alteration of every bad feeling we might have, are still relevant today in its humor, as it sees the proliferation of mood pills as pessimistically accepted as necessary, and for which big pharma is more than willing to push heavily on a populace in telling us we need their product to live fulfilling lives. Though this is a new, original project for Kids in the Hall, fans of the show will enjoy seeing some of the characters created for TV return in small bits, including a racist cab driver (who narrates), Cancer Boy (perhaps their most offensive and controversial character), the cops, and a handful of others.
The soundtrack is also a standout, including the original songs like the hard-driving grunge-metal opus "Some Days It's Dark" and the jazzy musical number, "I'm Gay". Featured artists in other areas include popular 90s college-radio acts like Liz Phair, They Might Be Giants, Matthew Sweet, Stereolab, Yo La Tengo, and others.
As so often happens with sketch-comedy ideas in a feature film form, many viewers will likely find Brain Candy to be a mixed bag, with Kids in the Hall fans likely being the most in tune, while those who don't like their brand of zany, mental humor altogether may grow less tolerant of the material with each passing character change and repeat joke (turning the inventor of a drug into an international celebrity seems a stretch). Even the members of Kids in the Hall themselves have been ambivalent toward their film, especially in some of the alterations they consented to in order to make the film more marketable (the original ending to the film was much less 'happy' in nature, ironically), as well as the compromises they refused (the Cancer Boy moments did not please studio heads) that ended up turning people off, including Paramount Pictures (who seemed less inclined to promote it), toward the project altogether.
As for me, who ended up watching it twice before writing this review, I found that the second time around is more infectious and rewarding, as I anticipated revisiting the parts that I enjoyed the first time around, and could more readily see the bleakly conceived societal satire on the persistent desire to feel happiness, even if inorganically, that the Kids in the Hall team were brewing underneath all of the inane shenanigans and darkly humorous characterizations. The last third of the film in particular gets into black comedy area so unrelentingly grim that it may even sour some who were laughing throughout the first hour, but as the theme of the film suggests, you can't appreciate ups if you never have any downs. Brain Candy is a bitter pill of a comedy one might find as bleak and discomforting as real life were it not for the ability for the Kids to persistently find our happy.
©2017 Vince Leo