Lorne Michaels' Canadian troupe Kids in the Hall became minor hip 1990s celebrities for their offbeat, goofball comedy. They weren't absurdist in the tradition of Monty Python or The Goon Show but they would do the strangest takes on modern life. There must be something in the Canadian upbringing that makes people take a strange-angled outsider look to literally everything and they took full advantage coming up with just bizarre asides and weird takes on things ("Lesbians are great. They get so much done in a day...") and they were right with the zeitgeist and were the quirkiest, oddest, strangely hippest comedians of the day.
It was decided to give them their own film, which was supposed to put a cap on their five seasons' worth of shows. So in 1996 they released this film, the full title of which is Kids in the Hall: Brain Candy. It takes what is essentially their own brand of sketch comedy based on a character and a premise, and finds a McGuffin to string all these threads together.
That thread is the development of a drug, called Gleemonex, which is supposed to be the ultimate antidepressant. It works by making the subject periodically relive their happiest moment ever, which would periodically "pep up" someone who is is clinically depressed. However, it is rushed through testing by the head scientist on the team who fears unemployment and the end of his research should he not be able to provide immediate results - the owner of the company is uninterested in anything but more money (like, right now) and goes through the staff terminating everyone who doesn't have the next new hit wonder drug ready to go. Partly out of fear and self-interest but also to protect his team including a co-worker he's crushing on, he says yes. His product is ready to go.
It allows what would in essence be a quick, amusing anecdote - a father who is so heavily closeted he's clearly gay as hell to everyone but himself with literally everyone trying to get him to come out at least to himself, a pastiche of grunge rock who is so nihilistic and down he can't even be bothered to finish singing his own song, and the audience that loves it, and a sweet little old lady whose family just doesn't come to visit her anymore and lives out a life of quiet and lonely desperation - to further look into and develop a character, and find more humor in the premise that doesn't fit into one sketch.
But what makes this cult film shine is the fact that it has a philosophy. Some aspects of it seem rather Buddhist - the idea that life is inherently suffering and that we're all trapped in an existence that is nothing but some variant of a personal hell. There's a brief shot at the beginning panning across an apartment building showing extremely brief vignettes, such as an old man seeing himself in the mirror, trying to flex his arm, and then despairing at his unattractive, ailing body. It happens quick enough that it is captured only just during the pan, but sets forth the overarching premise, bookmarked at the end by an acerbic taxi driver that "Life is short, life is shit, and soon it will be over." (It sounds better in the original Croatian).
It further goes into that same territory by mocking our attempts to medicate away our problems. Clinging to things that make us fleetingly happy in an attempt to escape the rolling, crushing, multi-generational hell of samsara, and that doing so is a mistake - is VERY much a Buddhist idea.
In fact, at the end - when they discover the horrifying side effect in some people that it traps them, zombified, in their happiest memory which loops constantly, forever - is a perfect, PERFECT analogy for what Buddha referred to as the laughing hell and is in line with the Buddhist that ALL emotions and passions are painful, not just the ones we normally associate with pain.
But where it escapes that territory is in attempts, like in the vignette with the gay dad, to say that the solution involves, at least, being "true to yourself" whereas a Buddhist would argue there is no self to be true to.
It weaves in some other observations, such as the idea that one man's happiest memory is pissing into his boss' coffee - and the boss' happiest memory is of a particularly flavorful coffee with a sharp bite and unusual flavor note he's never tasted in a cup of coffee before. Is it really mean and evil if the other person appreciates it? And if you don't know you're drinking piss, and it's not harming you, so what if you are and you enjoy it?
There's a touching and heartbreaking piece in which the old lady's happiest memory is the family coming to visit for Christmas. Though they walk in, indifferent to her and the kids complaining that they have to go see Grandma - literally grabbing her presents to them and running off, and within 30 seconds the father takes a swig of a drink and then they turn around and leave, even though she's spent all day cooking them a beautiful Christmas dinner. Even though it's brutal to watch, it brings to mind the koan of the man hanging off the edge of a cliff by a plant slowly pulling out by the root, with a tiger waiting to savage him on the edge of the cliff and sharp rocks below. He finds a strawberry, and delights in its sweetness and flavor.
But of course, this is a comedy - and as such has to be filled with the Kids' penchant for mimickry, be it absolutely lambasting scene kids gossiping about all their friends being on this hip new medication, which broke to #1 in the charts in "Drug Variety" upon release - or Bruce McCulloch's almost offensive depiction of the way Hollywood scripts women to stand in place getting agitated before making an overdramatic exit.
Some of the material hasn't really aged well, and I don't just mean the clothes, grunge references, obvious send-up of antidepressant use as something to do to "join in". It would be hard for a 2018 audience to understand just how shocking the dad's gay fantasies were to a 1990s audience - from his own personal happiest memory of doing pushups with his commanding officer lying on his back, going to a dream sequence in which he takes on the enemy by being sodomized by them all while the rest of his unit stays behind masturbating furiously at the spectacle, running off to engage them in assless BDUs. Or the very real angst in terms of why someone would feel the need to hide that from society in general, in a day when it's pretty much considered a normal way of life.
The head of the laboratory talking like Dr. Evil and having a back room where "the real stuff happens" seems like a stolen joke from Austin Powers but it's actually a send-up, like Dr. Evil himself is, of Lorne Michaels and his characteristic way of talking and acting. At the time the Austin Powers franchise hadn't been released, but again, it seems like stolen material these days.
Frankly, the film does hold together somewhat, but the Kids' forte was in short, sharp sequences, not drawn out narratives about a particular character. And the whole "Gleemonex" thing seems like what it is - the "central story" that glues together the episodes of a portmanteau film, rather than being what it should - a story in and of itself.
But somehow that doesn't really matter. What the film does best is explore, and it's strange that it would be comedians that do it - the nature of life, and that most of it is bleak and painful. We get a good laugh at the drug researcher missing the point completely and deciding the antidote would be to make a drug that traps people in their worst memory, making their life literally a living hell, but then again - that's the core strength of this movie. It examines and mocks the various ways we try to deal with what is fundamentally short, brutish and unfair.