Comedy Central's short-lived but much-loved 1999-2000 series, "Strangers with Candy," has been off the air for nearly six years. In the interim, it has garnered an impassioned cult following, and for good reason. The creatively perverse brainchild of Amy Sedaris, Stephen Colbert and Paul Dinello, the show took the format of a cheesy "Afterschool Special" and then turned the preachy genre on its head by offering absolutely no lessons to go along with its characters' flaws and mistakes. Its unforgettable simultaneous protagonist and antagonist? 47-year-old Jerri Blank (Amy Sedaris), an ex-prostitute junkie crack whore just out of prison for the first time in thirty-two years and on a mission to pick her life up exactly where she left off: as a high school freshman. For three seasons, "Strangers with Candy" was ruthless, ribald, potentially offensive, hilariously acerbic, and joyous in its moral bankruptcy.
Jerri Blank ranks up there with the best and most original of television characters, so it only makes sense that she would finally get her own movie. As written by Sedaris, Colbert and Dinello, this film adaptationa sort of prequel and remake of the seriesis way too limited in scope and frivolous in plot to live up to its big-screen ambitions. Subplots involving a torturously forbidden same-sex romance and a competition between science fair teams get in the way of what director Paul Dinello should be focusing on: Jerri's constantly thwarted attempts to do well in school and fit in with her peers as she comes of age a second timewithout ever really growing up or learning anything in the process. There is some of this, sure, but that would have been quite enough had Jerri been expanded beyond what was seen on the television show. Instead, the film is more or less akin to an average episode, albeit an 86-minute one that is stretched to the breaking point.
Flaws and all, "Strangers with Candy" has one invaluable thing going for it: the utterly fearless and downright brilliant comic performance of Amy Sedaris (2003's "Elf
"), a too often unsung treasure of an entertainer whose priceless facial expressions alone hold the key to big laughs. Sedaris, uglied up beyond recognition with a scrunched face, twitchy crossed eyes and a nasty overbite, digs into the horrid grotesquerie of Jerri Blank with the voracious appetite of an underfed cannibal. Jerri is selfish, racist, mean-spirited, slutty, intellectually challenged and a homophobic bisexual, to boot, and yet Sedaris makes her unequivocally lovable in every scene. She may not have a shred of human decency or pride, but her steadfast wish to be accepted and cared about is one that viewers can relate to and sympathize with. Against all odds, Jerri Blanklike the title character in 2004's "Napoleon Dynamite
," for exampleis an outcast worth rooting for.
Barebones and overplotted, "Strangers with Candy" picks up with ex-con Jerri Blank just as she has been released from prison. Eager to return home and see her parents after three decades behind bars, she is dismayed to learn that her mother is dead, her father (Dan Hedaya) is in a stress-induced coma, and her new stepmother Sara (Deborah Rush) and stepbrother Derrick (Joseph Cross) despise her. Jerri, believing herself to be the cause of her dad's condition, decides that she'll make him proud again by enrolling back into high school and achieving all that she squandered the first time she was a teen.
Now at Flatpoint High, Jerri becomes best friends with unpopular "acquaintances" Tammi Littlenut (Maria Thayer) and Megawatti Sacarnaputri (Carlo Alban) while pining after the glory of the cool clique, headed by hunk Brason (Chris Pratt). When Jerri, Tammi and Megawatti join forces with emotionally unraveling science teacher Chuck Noblet (Stephen Colbert) on a science fair project, their surefire plans for the top prize are threatened after Jerri hands over their top-secret blueprints to competitor Brason in exchange for a roll in the hay with him. Also making return appearances from the series are art teacher Geoffrey Jellineck (Paul Dinello), whom the married Chuck is involved in a secret love affair with, and Principal Blackman (Gregory Hollimon), who hires renowned science professor Roger Beekman (Matthew Broderick) to run against Noblet's team in the science fair in order to assure victory and appease two school board officials (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Allison Janney).
The science fair material is lame and slows down the film's second half, while the ongoing tale of tough love between Noblet and Jellineck wears out its welcome. When "Strangers with Candy" stays put on the trials and travails of Jerri Blank, however, the picture is darkly winning, delightfully vicious and very, very funny. The prologuea montage of Jerri's experiences in the clinkgets things off to a rib-tickling start. The sparkling dialogue, filled to the gills with quips, putdowns, double entendres, off-color humor and ironic one-liners, jumps off the page and out of the actors' mouths with savory abandon. In pure illiterate Jerri mode, she attempts to read the movie's title in her opening narration, but can only manage, "Stranglers with C-ca-ca...I guess we'll never know." Full of subtleties and background details, the film also has obviously been made for repeat viewings; the sight gags come so fast that it's not possible to catch them all in one sitting.
Aside from the central actorsnext to Sedaris, Gregory Hollimon is as exquisitely deadpan as ever as Principal Blackman; Maria Thayer (2005's "Hitch
") slips with ease back into the fun role of fiery copperhead Tammi Littlenut; and Deborah Rush (2003's "American Wedding
") steals scenes as Jerri's bitchy stepmother Sarathe film is made up of a stream of cameo appearances met with varying degrees of success. On the plus side, Sarah Jessica Parker (2006's "Failure to Launch
") is a hoot as the school's grievance counselor, who cares more about the tip jar on her desk than the welfare of her students; Ian Holm (2004's "The Aviator
") is notable as Dr. Putney for hysterically exiting a scene by abruptly sliding down a staircase banister; and Kristen Johnston (1999's "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me
") gets one of the best laughs as the wheelchair-bound Coach Divers. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Philip Seymour Hoffman (2006's "Mission: Impossible III
") and Allison Janney (2003's "How to Deal
") are wasted as bickering school board officials; Matthew Broderick's (2005's "The Producers
") every moment onscreen falls flat as science fair extraordinaire Roger Beekman; and Dan Hedaya (2002's "Swimfan
") literally is comatose through the whole running time (save for a fantasy sequence) as Jerri's ill-fated father Guy Blank.
Diehard fans of the Comedy Central series will be in heaven with this cinematic translation, more so for the chance to reunite with the old characters than because the film is overwhelming or groundbreaking (it's not). The change in motivation for Jerri to return to high school (a desire to live out her missed years in the show versus wanting to please her ailing daddy in the movie) is one misstep that many fans probably could do without, as it actually narrows Jerri's dimensions as a character a notch. Nevertheless, for audiences previously unaware of Jerri Blank, this is as good a place to start as any to see what the fuss is all about. Indeed, it is Amy Sedaris' gloriously hideous portrayal alone ("I want your spermies," Jerri forthrightly tells Brason when he comes to pick her up for their date) that makes "Strangers with Candy" worth seeking out. A slight but savvy cult-hit-in-the-making, the picture takes no prisoners and makes no apologies for what it is: a satire about basic human values and morals that happens to not have a human value or moral in its seedy, happily egotistical little head.