Film Reviews

Kid in a Candy store

When a Los Angeles publicist for a major Hollywood studio asks, "Which Kid do you want to interview?" the choice is tough. Two days apart, two different staffers in Paramount's L.A. publicity office called with offers to chat with any of the five Kids in the Hall about the feature debut Brain Candy.

For a few days, my scam works: I'm booked for phoners with Scott Thompson and Mark McKinney. Apparently, though, the staffers swapped stories at the water cooler. A phone call let me know the gig was up: "Unfortunately, you'll have to choose." One hellacious soul-searching session ensued, and the answer was: Maybe next time, Mark.

How could we who became adults (and came out) during the quiet TV reign of Kids in the Hall (1989-1994) name a favorite among the five 30ish Canadian actors who co-wrote and performed ambisexual ensemble material?

Originally produced in America by HBO under the stewardship of Saturday Night Live co-creator Lorne Michaels, Kids in the Hall was largely ignored by the U.S. press during its five years. Entertainment Weekly dismissed it as "the poor man's Monty Python," a comparison which correctly identified a major influence, but discounted the dizzying heights the Kids often reached. They played hundreds of male and female characters in live studio sketches and short movies, with a Pythonian appreciation for concept over consequence. About a third of the Kids' TV material sinks under the weight of unfulfilled promise.

"By the time the show was over, I was exhausted from the effort of having to create so many characters," Scott Thompson says. "I'd started to recycle old parts and give them new names. In some ways, the end was a relief. I thought I had nothing left creatively."

All five Kids stretched their personalities on a weekly torture rack of episodes which crammed as many new characters as possible into worlds in which they didn't quite fit. Thompson, Dave Foley, Bruce McCulloch, Kevin McDonald, and Mark McKinney sneered at grownup responsibility and its overcomplicated sexual rules with sketch material that blended vaudevillian gimmickry and gender anarchy. Four (alleged) heterosexuals and one (self-identified) homosexual threw open the gates to the Gay '90s.

Scott Thompson insists, despite the weight of world opinion to the contrary, that he is the only gay Kid. "These guys are the biggest bunch of nonpansy pansies I've ever met," he says about his friends- and colleagues-in-crime. But why the emphasis--nay, obsession--with genders and orientations? "It would take years of counseling to unearth the root of those psychological problems," Thompson says, snickering. "Here you have four straight guys who don't just play women, but want to play them, right? Whoa."

Except for reruns shown daily on Comedy Central, the Kids in the Hall have taken their toys and moved elsewhere: Dave Foley and Scott Thompson graduated to critically acclaimed TV series (NBC's News Radio and HBO's The Larry Sanders Show, respectively); Mark McKinney has taken his uncanny instincts for character to the semirejuvenated Saturday Night Live; Kevin McDonald was featured in National Lampoon's Senior Trip, whose director, Kelly Makin, also helms Brain Candy and is a Kids technical alumnus; and Bruce McCulloch showcased short films for SNL and has released an album of comedy and music.

So their collective cult reps have earned them follow-up projects, but as individuals they--and the show they created--still fly far under the radar of mainstream American pop culture.

The Kids reunited for Brain Candy, which Thompson admits serves as "a test case" for the Kids' future prospects. (Translation: If this film doesn't turn a profit, we're Splitsville.) After the relative success earned by Foley, McKinney, and Thompson in their post-Kids TV careers and an enthusiastic lobby by Lorne Michaels, who has toiled as "executive producer" on behalf of several loathsome SNL feature spin-offs, Paramount was in a gambling mood.

But even with Brain Candy's small budget, there was tremendous pressure on the Kids to recreate their most famous original characters. More obscure eccentrics from the show, like Cancer Boy, Raj, and Melanie, appear in cameo performances, but the film is otherwise dominated by names unfamiliar to even the most diehard Kidophile.

"They did lots of market surveys and crap like that [for Brain Candy]," the actor says. "It was definitely not a typical Paramount project, judging from all the research that was commissioned. They determined who were the most popular people from the TV show--Buddy Cole, the Chicken Lady, Cabbage Head, etc.--and then weighed on us to write them into the script."

But thanks mostly to interference run by Lorne Michaels, the ever-precocious Kids prevailed. They insisted on creating a film completely populated by new characters. Not only that, they'd weave all the stories into one 90-minute narrative about a government-approved drug called Gleemonex that returns every sad user to his or her happiest

memory. "We had Prozac in mind while we wrote the script, of course, but there are plenty of other popular antidepressants out there," Thompson says.

Brain Candy follows an antidepression pill as it's introduced by the overzealous head (Mark McKinney) of a multibillion-dollar pharmaceutical corporation. The "little people" affected include a married closet case and a grandmother with a neglectful family (both played by Thompson, who suggested in a recent Movieline interview that he possesses a face natural for "dykes and old ladies"). The film switches between those stories and the publicity side of Gleemonex, headed by a sadistic public-relations Wunderkind (Bruce McCulloch) who named the pill after cleaning the "gleamin' guts" of a bird off his windshield.

Devotees will be ecstatic, newcomers alienated by the constant, sometimes distracting (even for a devotee) shifts in comic mood. Brain Candy preserves for big-screen posterity both the revelations and misfires inherent in the creative technique of Kids in the Hall, who stole their nickname from the free-lance comedy writers who hawked one-liners to Jack Benny. In spirit and practice, the Kids are happy to rescue a sinking skit with a stock one-liner that has little to do with what came before.

A propensity toward shock for its own sake, perhaps more exaggerated now that the troupe finds itself on a taller screen, echoes through the movie as Scott Thompson channels an angry homo humor that seems designed to offend gays as much as straights. Even as he bashes heterosexual marriage and the military's head-in-the-sand stance on homosexuality, he portrays the process of "coming out" as an anticlimactic musical production. The husband whose true sexual nature was unearthed by Gleeminox is carried through the streets by suburban neighbors to the tune of an Andrew Lloyd Webberish number called "I'm Gay!" The coda provided by chorus members as they drop Thompson on the pavement is, "Who cares?"

As one of the first among a generation of North American comics to declare his homosexuality, Thompson is far more bitter about his neglect by the U.S. gay and lesbian press than more mainstream publicity outlets.

"They [the American gay press] can kiss my ass," he says. "I've asked my agent to get me on the cover of Ebony, because The Advocate doesn't like me. That's no surprise for a magazine that features more straights than homos on its cover."

The comedy in Brain Candy is propelled by a similar take-no-prisoners spleen. Plenty of moviegoers will be impatient with the unconventional pace, perplexed by the drag performances that bear no trace of irony, and contemptuous of the film's less successful subplots.

"Our success in different parts of America was always a capricious thing," Thompson says of the Kids. "People in Los Angeles knew us a while before we caught on in New York City, because of a Manhattan cable glitch. But we always seemed to find our way to an audience." About Brain Candy and its confrontationalism, the actor concludes sarcastically, "We decided to be self-destructive."

Brain Candy. Paramount. Dave Foley, Bruce McCulloch, Kevin McDonald, Mark McKinney, Scott Thompson. Written by Norm Hiscock, McCulloch, McDonald, McKinney, Thompson. Directed by Kelly Makin. Opens April 12.

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Jimmy Fowler