Theatrical Review: Amy Sedaris
’ Comedy Central series Strangers with Candy was an absurdist deconstruction of after school special conventions, following the wacky travails of 46-year-old ex-junkie, ex-con, ex-prostitute Jerri Blank (Sedaris) as she reentered high school as a freshman student. A potent cocktail of vulgarity, farcicality, and switchblade-sharp wordplay, the show was a mild cult hit for the then-fledging cable channel (as well as its first original live-action program), running for three brief seasons and eventually launching the career of Stephen Colbert
(The Colbert Report). Unceremoniously cancelled in 2000 just as it was hitting its ludicrous stride, Strangers with Candy seemed destined to become another footnote in television history, consigned to the same overlooked fate as Chris Elliot’s Get a Life and Fox’s recently canned Arrested Development. Until, that is, Sedaris and co-creators Colbert and Paul Dinello
somehow convinced David Letterman’s Worldwide Pants Inc. to produce a feature-length version of the disregarded pseudo-sitcom, which now arrives in theaters like a giant middle finger to every inspirational Hollywood melodrama that tries to argue that people can transform themselves for the better, hard work is rewarded, and heroin is bad.
Unfortunately, however, the cinematic Strangers with Candy – directed by Dinello, who also reprises his role as idiotic, effeminate art teacher Geoffrey Jellineck – only maintains its antagonistic inappropriateness long enough to fill out its first 45 minutes; after that, the tank runs pretty dry and the proceedings become akin to a mediocre TV episode in which plot, rather than scatological silliness, is the main focus. Its story is a prequel of sorts to the Comedy Central series. The film kicks off with a credit montage of Jerri’s hilarious exploits in prison (murdering a fellow inmate, enjoying a shower with a naked female) before following her home, where she discovers her dad (Dan Hedaya
) is in a coma, mom is dead and replaced by hateful stepmonster Sara (Deborah Rush
), and she now has a loathsome jock half-brother named Derrick (Joseph Cross
). When the family physician (played by Ian Holm
!) suggests that Jerri might cure her father by trying to undo the past thirty-two years-worth of depraved behavior, she decides to enroll at Flatpoint High, where she finds herself both tussling with barely-in-the-closet science teacher Chuck Noblet (Colbert) and blissfully moronic principal Blackman (Gregory Holliman
), and hanging out with friends Megawatti Sukharnabhoutri (Carlo Alban
) and Iris Puffybush (Dolores Duffy
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Such insanely inane character names are a good indicator of SWC’s humor, which revels in ridiculousness and abounds with riotous non-sequiturs during its superb opening half. From Jerri claiming that her IQ is “Pisces,” to Noblett stating, during the creation of a science fair team, that “Koreans and Jews will make up the core of the think tank,” the film kicks off with unbridled outrageousness. Upending stereotypes and genre tropes with pedal-to-the-metal lunacy, Sedaris, Colbert and Dinello’s script deftly indulges in celebrity cameos (including Philip Seymour Hoffman
, Sarah Jessica Parker
, and Matthew Broderick
) while introducing new and familiar faces. Holliman and Colbert, in particular, exhibit the same sublimely amusing weirdness as they did on the show, while others – such as Jerri’s father, now depicted as a sleeping stiff rather than a bizarrely posed human mannequin – turn out to have been reimagined for the worse. Fortunately, though, such character-reconfigurations aren’t enough to steal the spotlight from Sedaris, whose lumpy, buck-toothed, sexually voracious Jerri remains a brilliantly inspired creation of ignorance and impropriety, her capricious desires to improve herself and her fellow classmates habitually undone by her arrogance, intolerance, and selfishness.
Still, Sedaris’ Jerri can’t fully compensate for the filmmakers’ decision to largely abandon humorously arbitrary flights of fancy in order to concentrate on an uninspired narrative about a science competition pitting Noblet’s dysfunctional, Jerri-headlined squad against that of renowned state champion Roger Beekman (Broderick). Grinding to a halt as it plods toward a rather limp finale involving a superconductor-themed song-and-dance number and a competing Bollywood-style extravaganza, Strangers with Candy seems uninterested in taking advantage of its cinematic canvas to expand upon the original show’s scope and ambition. Given that the film’s answer to Jerri’s opening question “Can we change?” is a resounding “no,” it’s probably fitting that director Dinello – employing some charmingly chintzy production values and an assortment of overly dramatic zooms and pans – doesn’t attempt to alter his material’s limited boob toob scale and aesthetic. But despite its faithfulness and frequent funniness, Jerri’s big-screen (mis)adventure ultimately, and more than a tad disappointingly, never provides more laughs than one is apt to get from watching a random selection of episodes on one of Comedy Central’s TV-on-DVD compilations.