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Steal This Candy: Please

Cons nab Candy, filmmakers can't decide what kind of cheese they want

(This review contains spoilers for the movie, as well as for Irving Wallace's novel "The Fan Club" so don't read it if this is important to you. And as there is a major plot twist at the end, it might be. Stranger things have happened.)

Stealing Candy is the story of three ex-cons who get together for One Last Job that will Make Millions for all of them. In this case, it involves kidnapping a beautiful movie star known for her no-nudity clauses in her contracts, and having her do a live, starring, totally nonconsensual role in an Internet webcast in which she's not only nude, but has sex. The ex-cons will charge a fee to the millions who tune in to watch the movie star get molested and get rich thereby. Since one of them is a super-hacker who has figured out a way to conceal both his website's location and the millions they'll be getting, they figure they will be able to head off into the sunset with their loot, leaving the movie star behind.

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In short, it's a formulaic erotic thriller, one of those many erotic thrillers that is not all that erotic and not all that thrilling. Except for the Internet theme, it's a movie that could have been made back in the seventies, and in fact the film has the look and feel of a seventies TV movie. Possibly this is because the male lead is Alex McArthur, most noted for appearing as the lead in five "Desperado" made for TV movies in the mid to late eighties. More likely, it's because it has the aura of cheapness: bad lighting, uninspired acting, uninspired directing, cheap sets, etc., that's typical of a lot of TV movies. But most especially it's because of the script, which has that vague, ill-defined quality that's typical of TV movies.

Stealing Candy is not a BAD movie, mind you, not in the sense that so many other movies I've seen are bad. It's mediocre, much in the way that most TV movies are mediocre. All of the elements of the movie were put together with a certain basic competence that keeps it safe from true badness. The cast and crew of the films are for the most part mid-range professionals who carry off their assignments with an acceptable level of skill.

The result is about 83 minutes of what another reviewer has adroitly dubbed "cable filler." Eighty three minutes of stuff that you can leave on in the background while you're doing other, more interesting stuff. (Such as building web pages.)

The thing is, Stealing Candy could have been much, much more, as a quick Cheese Analysis will show. What is the cheese of Stealing Candy? The rape of Candy, the titular movie star who is kidnapped. (She's played by Jenya Lano, who's doing all right in B movies apparently... she's best known I think for a recurring role as Inspector Sheridan on the Charmed TV series).

Now, there are several ways to handle that kind of cheese. There is:

All but the last are approaches that can lead to a successful and satisfying movie, so of course, the last is the approach that Stealing Candy takes. It would have been EXTRAORDINARILY EASY to make Stealing Candy into a much better movie -- all it would take is one tiny script change É but first we have to deal with why it's bad.

Stealing Candy is bad because it tries to have its cake and eat it, too. That is, it tries to present the story as a serious drama in which we are invited to take Candy seriously as a person on the one hand, and as soft-core porn in which we are invited to letch on her Internet rape on the other hand.

Sorry, no, can't do that. As I pointed out in my reviews of "Act of Vengeance" and "Opposing Force" (two other movies that took the same approach Stealing Candy does) if you are going to treat a rape seriously in a dramatic way, you have to present it as what it is, an act of violence. You can't go all soft-core porn on us when you get to the sex scenes, because most people (male and female) aren't into rape and will get squicked out when they're invited to voyeuristically enjoy a sexual assault on someone they care about.

Now, if you're taking the softcore porn approach, you signal early on that the rape is not real in some way: the character really enjoys it, the situation is not to be taken seriously, etc. That way, when the rape occurs the audience can voyeuristically enjoy it, knowing that the lead character isn't really being hurt.

But B movie producers have repeatedly gotten greedy and tried to have both: a dramatic storyline, a soft-core porn rape, and it has never worked, not once.

***Spoiler Alert***

The thing is, the plotline of Stealing Candy had a key element that WOULD have allowed them to have their cake and eat it, too. There's a major plot twist at the end, when we learn that Candy, who's been having money troubles, is in cahoots with the mastermind and is planning to collect a share of the proceeds from her "rape" as part of the deal.

The hacker and the thug who are the hired hands in the deal are going to forfeit their shares due to being unfortunately killed by the mastermind as he "rescues" Candy after the rape. And to make the plot even twistier, Candy has her OWN plans for the mastermind, who will be killed by her when she "escapes," leaving her with all the money and a harrowing tale to tell -- and no one to contradict her. It'll be all "he said she said" except that "he" will be dead.

Bondage, Fetish and Adult Toy Superstore !

This is all very nice, very twisty plotting, but unfortunately it's all revealed in a series of surprise endings in the last ten minutes of the movie. Candy's complicity in the scheme SHOULD have been revealed far earlier, most especially prior to the rape scene. If we had known Candy was "in" on the rape from the beginning, it wouldn't be so much of a rape. In fact, it would be consensual sex, being PRESENTED as a rape on the Internet. Since the audience would know about it, they could voyeuristically enjoy it, knowing no one was really being used against their will. This would be one of those cases where the filmmakers COULD have their cake and eat it, too.

Letting the audience in on Candy's participation early on also opens up all sorts of dramatic possibilities, as it suddenly becomes apparent that the two henchmen are being played for chumps, and it wouldn't be hard at all to drop a hint here, a clue there, that everyone is playing everyone else for chumps, and the suspense becomes, "Who will survive?"

This could also add an element of black comedy to the proceedings, as the Internet audience believes they are watching the deflowering of an innocent movie star whose strong moral standards have led her to reject nudity in her roles, whereas in fact she's a hard-hearted schemer who considers her online sex act just another scene to be performed.

Well, they didn't play it that way, and more's the pity as the "big surprises" as the end of the story aren't nearly enough to make up for all the dullness that came earlier. It's just not worth wading through 80 minutes of incredibly dull plot development to wind up with 15 minutes of "surprises." Far better to get the guessing started early.

The production quality wasn't the only thing that had me thinking back to the eighties. The plotline of Stealing Candy was also strongly reminiscent of Irving Wallace's 1980 bestseller The Fan Club. It's the story of a group of four fans of a hottie movie star who kidnap her so they can have sex with her. Unlike the protagonist of Stealing Candy, the movie star in the Fan Club is not in on the plot, she is truly a victim. But like the protagonist of Stealing Candy the movie star/victim of The Fan Club has resources that aren't apparent to her kidnappers, and she successfully turns the tables on them.

Although several of Irving Wallace's bestsellers were quickly and profitably adapted into movies (The Word, The Prize, The Seven Minutes, The Chapman Report) The Fan Club never made it, reportedly because a spate of assaults by stalker/fans led some to fear that a movie about fans that kidnap a movie star would lead to copycat crimes.

When I saw Stealing Candy my first thought was "somebody read The Fan Club and decided to update it". I'm not really sure whether or not that's the case -- while there are similarities between the two stories, Candy is different enough from Fan Club that one doesn't necessarily follow from the other. Still, when you combine the 80s bestseller nature of Wallace's book and its plot's eerie resemblance to a 2002 erotic thriller that LOOKS a lot like an 80s TV movie, you get a strange sense that maybe Stealing Candy is the movie that might have been made from The Fan Club, somehow displaced in time and subtly altered.

There is a powerful difference between the two stories. Wallace's Fan Club takes great pains to develop all of its characters as characters. That way, when the kidnapped movie star begins playing one captor against the other, using the street smarts developed during a rough childhood to take control of her situation while tied naked to a bed, it is a lot more believable than anything that happens in Stealing Candy. You understand why captor A would be vulnerable to one sort of psychological appeal, and why captor B would be vulnerable to another. When they start turning on one another, it makes perfect sense given what we've learned about the various captors.

None of the characters in Stealing Candy have anything like this kind of depth. They pretty much are their functions within the story.

There's one other major problem with Stealing Candy, and that's that there's very little of that softcore porn cheese that was so irresistible to the movie's creator (Dana Dubovsky, who's credited as both executive producer and writer). If you are going to go the softcore porn route with your story at all, you might as well do it right, because it's going to squick the people who'll find it squicky no matter how little there is. The big sex scene is brief, badly lit, badly performed and, well, kinda dull. (I was all prepared to say something snarky here about it being an authentic depiction of the goings-on at most Internet sex sites, but then I thought about it and realized that the ones I've seen have been well lit, lengthy, explicit and not at all dull if you're in the mood to watch sex. So they're a LOT better than the scene in Stealing Candy.)

If they'd gone softcore and made it evident from the beginning that she was in on it, with lots of "practice sex" leading up to the big scene, that would have worked. If they'd played it as a straight thriller, that would have worked, too, though not very well judging from the general flatness of the movie as is (it's very close to being a straight thriller).

So, to summarize: greed on the part of the filmmakers led them to try to get both erotic thriller suspense and porn voyeurism cheese for the audience, something that doesn't work in most cases because the one is inimical to the other. Then what voyeuristic cheese there is, is badly lit, brief and badly done. All in all, a very unrewarding movie. It's just another example of the general mediocrity that transformed what could have been a tough, raunchy little story into 83 minutes of generic cable filler.