Film Review: Struck by Lightning

“Glee” favorite Chris Colfer wrote and stars in this particularly self-serving vehicle, the narcissism of which impedes the fun.

Carson Phillips (Chris Colfer) is 17 and wants to write for The New Yorker and win the Nobel Prize, but unfortunately he is stuck in a particularly unsupportive high school in a small town. Not helping matters is his drug- and booze-addled mother Sheryl (Allison Janney), who is divorced from his absentee father (Dermot Mulroney), who is starting a new family with younger wife April (Christina Hendricks). He also contends with a grandmother (Polly Bergen) who has—no surprise here—Alzheimer’s.

Carson is totally obsessed with getting into the college of his choice, but to do that he feels he must start a literary magazine with student body contributions. Already the editor of the most apathetic newspaper staff imaginable, and far from popular due to his superior, condescending attitude toward everyone, he finds that recruiting writers will not be an easy task.

Colfer, the highly beloved star of the highly beloved (and, to be fair, often despised) TV show “Glee,” wrote the screenplay for Struck by Lightning, which has its bright and insightful moments. Unfortunately, it also has a whole lot of callow narcissism, starting with the fact that his film begins with Carson being literally struck dead by lightning, thereby having to tell his tale in self-serving flashback. It’s a dream role—if shallowly conceived—for any actor, intensified by the fact that Carson happens to be the smartest, most sensitive person in his universe.

Had Colfer’s writing possessed more true wit, we might have been able to believe his conceit and gone along happily on his ride. But Carson’s ubiquitous know-it-all air is a turn-off and his bon mots aren’t that bon—“I hate you more than the Holocaust” or “Our founding fathers were largely homosexual and slave owners”—almost putting you on the side of the bullies who torment him.

Although he retains his uncannily exquisite bone structure and creamy complexion, all the sprightly, uncannily confident charm Colfer exhibits on “Glee” seems to have evaporated here. It’s as if he wanted to get as far away as possible from his character Kurt on the show and present himself as this Teflon-tough little control freak who, weirdly, seems very gay, but in this film is as fully asexual as any character Franklin Pangborn, Grady Sutton or Tony Randall ever played under the restrictive Hays Code. No lustful thought or craving seems to ruffle his pristine adolescent veneer, so career- and college-obsessed is he.

Carson actually emerges as a bigger bully than anyone in his school, with his devious plan of blackmailing students into contributing to his journal. He threatens a clandestinely gay couple of boys with outing, which leaves a particularly nasty aftertaste.

Colfer’s best-drawn character is Sheryl, and Janney seems to enjoy herself playing this utter mess of a woman, dragging her ass to the prescription counter of the local drugstore to get her meds from Hendricks, who, in a particular contrivance, is her unknowing pharmacist. Janney presents an unvarnished portrait of a bitter, rejected woman who’s of no help whatsoever to her son, spewing negativity and wallowing in self-pity and pills. Hendricks registers as well in a very thinly written role, conveying a wide-eyed sweetness even when confronted by the full horror of the existence of a dysfunctional family her husband has concealed from her. The currently very hot character actress Rebel Wilson appears as Carson’s only friend on the school paper, and her loosey-goosey, unhinged comedy is always welcome. However, all those filmmakers who love to cast her but give her so little material to work with think it’s enough that she brings her dippy cluelessness to their sets. It isn’t, and all too often she is forced to fall back on shtick we’ve already seen before in her brief career.