Mystery Science Theater 3000:
In show biz, as in gambling, politics, and smoking, it’s wise to quit while you’re ahead. This week, two defunct TV cult comedy shows, Kids in the Hall and Mystery Science Theater 3000, attempt to resurrect themselves on the big screen. Neither succeeds. One tries too hard to adapt to a different medium; the other barely tries at all.
The Kids’ 110-episode series, produced in Canada between 1989 and 1994 and aired domestically on HBO and CBS, can currently be seen in reruns on Comedy Central—unavailable on D.C.’s primitive cable system. The troupe’s off-the-wall sketches—six or seven per half-hour show—introduced a gallery of peerless comic grotesques: the misanthropic Head Crusher, the male chauvinist Cabbage Head, the unabashedly gay Buddy Cole, the sexually inflamed Chicken Lady, and the Cathys, a duo of beleaguered office workers. Irreverent and concise, the Kids’ routines are triumphant miniatures of pop surrealism, rivaled only by Monty Python and SCTV.
Overblown and shoddily executed, Brain Candy is certain to disappoint the Kids’ devoted following and bewilder viewers hitherto unexposed to the CableACE award–winning group’s efforts. In the movie’s press material, co-writer/performer Bruce McCulloch observes: “This film is different from the television skits in that it’s a developed narrative. That allowed us to create some new characters; it’s fresher for us to work that way.” But the “new” characters, including an unprincipled corporation executive and a naive, idealistic scientist, are stale satirical targets, and the plot, about the discovery of a mood-elevating drug that offers bliss followed by crippling depression, is embarrassingly derivative. (Previous screen versions of the same theme include at least two comedies, 1961’s Lover Come Back and 1968’s What’s So Bad About Feeling Good?, and the 1990 drama Awakenings.) None of the Kids’ signature characters appears in the film, though some minor ones—a surly Croatian cabdriver, the White Trash Couple, chat-show hostess Nina Bedford, a pair of inept cops, and the show’s tubby mascot, Bellini—make cameo appearances as a sop to the Kids’ fans.
Brain Candy’s screenplay, written by Norm Hiscock and four of the five Kids (David Foley is blameless), lacks inspiration. Researcher Chris Cooper (Kevin McDonald) invents Cleemonex, an insufficiently tested antidepressant drug, which CEO Don Roritor (Mark McKinney) prematurely markets to rescue his company’s flagging finances. Initially effective in reverting bummed-out consumers to the happiest moments of their lives, the pill’s long-term effect is to induce comatose states. The film’s hackneyed moral—that there can be no happiness without experiencing sadness—is precisely the kind of flatulent homily the Kids gleefully savaged in their TV sketches.
Formally, Brain Candy is a mess, an ambitious but underbudgeted, cheesily executed production. Its central set—the ostentatious Roritor Corp. headquarters—compares unfavorably to the elegant production design that distinguished the otherwise irritating The Hudsucker Proxy. Cinematographer David A. Makin’s morose images—underlit, with a bluish cast and mortuary-flesh tones—couldn’t be less appropriate for sustaining a comedic tone. (Someone should have handed him a bottle of Cleemonex!) Even the musical production numbers—Scott Thompson’s jubilant out-of-the-closet paean “I’m Gay” and the drug-induced frivolity of “Happiness Pie”—are grounded by Makin’s funereal camerawork and nepotistic director Kelly Makin’s graceless compositions and slapdash pacing. Why anyone would trust him with a second feature after his dismal debut, National Lampoon’s Senior Trip, is a mystery only producer Lorne Michaels can untangle.
However misconceived, Brain Candy doesn’t entirely neutralize the Kids’ performing skills. Mc-
Kinney, the slyest, most versatile member of the group, has some amusingly smug moments as Roritor (a characterization reportedly incorporating many of Michaels’ mannerisms) and exhibits his flair for gender-bending as the feather-brained Nina. Thompson, the most popular of the Kids judging by the preview audience’s applause during the opening credits, enjoys himself as an ultrabutch but covertly gay suburban husband, and dons drag for turns as a lab technician (who looks just like Fran Lebowitz) and, briefly, Queen Elizabeth. McCulloch has several lively scenes as a nihilistic Jim Morrison –clone pop star and the researcher’s simpering, virginal girlfriend. As Cooper, Kevin McDonald, the least mutable of the Kids, does his usual nerd bit, and the deceptively bland Foley, who did not have a chance to write any juicy material for himself, is saddled with several thankless subordinate roles.
Unlike Brain Candy, which imprisons the Kids’ gift for sketch comedy in a narrative straitjacket, Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie is little more than a 35mm blowup of its TV format. As always, power-mad Dr. Clayton Forrester (Trace Beaulieu) beams a lousy movie to his guinea pig Mike Nelson (Michael J. Nelson), trapped in space on the Satellite of Love with robot companions Tom Servo, Crow, and Gypsy. (Once Forrester’s “stinky cinematic suppositories” drive Mike and his mechanical pals insane, the Doctor plans to exhibit them back on earth, thereby achieving world domination.) Silhouetted in front of a movie screen, they preserve their sanity by spewing derisive commentary, like rowdy students on Saturday night at a college-town cinema.
Although MST3K has a host of avid followers, I find it works best when glimpsed fragmentarily, like the constantly projected but only intermittently observed wall-size television sets Andy Warhol once envisioned. It’s the kind of program one channel surfs into for a few chuckles, then flicks past. No attempt is made to sustain narrative coherence; the Z-movie selections are almost always truncated, and much of the dialogue is inaudible, drowned out by overlaid wisecracks. The program defines high concept; its ingenious conceit compensates for the hit-or-miss gags.
Apart from an expanded satellite set, MST3K: The Movie could be mistaken for any of its 120-plus small-screen episodes. The major concession to a wider, noncult audience is that it has been dumbed down in several telling ways. On TV, the show’s premise—the brainchild of erstwhile host Joel Hodgson, an eccentric, deadpan, former stand-up comedian subsequently replaced by the less engaging, depraved fraternity–boy Nelson—is swiftly established in a cheery opening song. The screen version replaces this with a cumbersome prologue in which Dr. Forrester spells everything out for sluggish moviegoers. The film-within-a-film, Joseph Newman’s 1954 sci-fi picture This Island Earth, starring stiff, basso-voiced Rex Reason and glacial former Howard Hughes squeeze Faith Domergue, lacks the catchpenny cruddiness of the Ed Wood/Bert I. Gordon cheapies shown on the video series. Its dullish competence fails to prod Mike and his cronies to their customary level of facetiousness.
The show’s surprisingly arcane allusions to politics, philosophy, the arts, and pop culture—Dennis Miller without the smirk—are less esoteric in its theatrical incarnation, suggesting that the team of six screenwriters, including director Jim Mallon, feared that a larger audience would be intimidated by obscure references. Some snappy quips remain. During This Island Earth’s U-I logo, one of the robots caustically queries, “Doesn’t the fact that it’s Universal make it International?” and a shot of a plane taking off is accompanied by the observation, “John Sununu goes for a haircut.” But as usual, much of the scattershot repartee falls flat, a failing previously masked by the distractions of commercial breaks and supplementary badinage by home viewers.
At 74 minutes—the original This Island Earth runs 86 minutes—MST3K: The Movie feels too long by half. At 21 inches, it might pass muster as one of the series’ less inspired episodes, but blown up to 21 feet, the flimsiness of its whimsical underpinning is too nakedly exposed.CP