Monday, July 24, 2006

In Theaters: Strangers With Candy

[Image courtesy]

STRANGERS WITH CANDY has been a long time coming to the big screen, following its memorable three-season run on Comedy Central (which ran from 1999 through 2000, oddly enough). Now it's slowly working its away across art houses, and I recommend catching it if you can. If you're a fan of the show, or of any of the work of Amy Sedaris, Stephen Colbert, and/or Paul Dinello, it's practically a legal obligation. It's a bit harder to explain to the uninitiated; the series was created as a satire of mawkish after-school specials, starring Sedaris as Jerri Blank, a 45-year-old ex-con and recovering addict who decides to start her life anew by moving back home and starting high school all over again. The film follows the same premise, but is even more vulgar, filthy, and generally insane. By this point you should have worked out whether you're the target audience.

The film plays as a "prequel" to the TV show, starting with Jerri's release from prison (complete with heartwarming flashbacks to her carefree days in the joint), and her first visit home, where she finds that her mother has died, his father (Dan Hedaya) has remarried a woman who barely acknowledges her existence (played by Deborah Rush), and has at some point during all this gone comatose. Dr. Putney (Ian Holm) determines that her father may reawaken if Jerri manages to undo all the debauchery of her past by picking up where she left off (high school) and theoretically doing well. Returning to school, she's generally ostracized, but is befriended by Indonesian exchange student Megawatti Sacarnaput (Carlo Alban) and pretty geek Tammi Littlenut (Maria Thayer). Meanwhile, Principal Onyx Blackman (Greg Hollimon) has a problem- the school board is demanding that his students demonstrate exceptional achievement or it will rescind its grant money, which Blackman has already gambled away. In an effort to save his skin, Blackman decides to hire ultra-popular high school science teacher Roger Beekman (Matthew Broderick) to put together a presentation for the upcoming science fair. Meanwhile, the school's actual science teacher Mr. Noblet (Colbert) has to struggle with his own class, as well as his on-again, off-again affair with Geoffrey Jellineck (Dinello), the school art teacher. Megawatti convinces Jerri to sign up for the fair, and soon she's part of Noblet's team, trying to put together a presentation while also wanting to get in good with the cool kids (who are naturally on Beekman's team, despite their lack of scientific aptitude.)

The plot is mostly secondary to the gags, which mostly revolve around Jerri's inability to fit in either at home or at school. As in the TV series, Sedaris' character is an endearingly unlikeable mix of the very jaded and the very naive; she eats like she's still in prison and makes sloppy, desperate passes at whatever men and women strike her fancy, but at the same time she can't work out high school social dynamics and is as awkward as any teenager in her desire for acceptance. She wants the love of her comatose father, but isn't willing to do the work. That she's also just not that bright complicates things. It's a brilliant performance, one honed to perfection on the series and delivered without a false note.

The acting is generally the best part of the film as a whole. Sedaris, Dinello, Colbert, Hollimon, Rush and Thayer all reprise their roles from TV (I'm not sure they're the only ones), and are supported by a number of celebrity guest stars, including Holm, Broderick, Allison Janney, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Sarah Jessica Parker. Alban and the other new cast members fit in well, though fans may dislike the changes. For those wondering, Colbert's character is vastly different from the gravitas-endowed host of Comedy Central's THE COLBERT REPORT, but he brings the same level of enthusiasm. There are several original songs, and some fairly good background gags.

To be sure, the film does play a lot like an extended episode of the television series, and it begins to lose steam near the end; a funnier climax would have elevated this to the level of a comedy classic. As it is, it's simply satisfying, the kind of solid cult comedy that should have a long life on TV and DVD. Then again, it'd be unlike Jerri to aim too high.

Written by Amy Sedaris, Paul Dinello and Stephen Colbert
Directed by Paul Dinello

Grade: B

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