Fans were no doubt happy to learn that Amy Sedaris, Paul Dinello and Stephen Colbert finally got around to crafting a feature film version of “Strangers With Candy,” their three-season-long series on Comedy Central. The show went off the air five years ago, but continued to resonate with viewers and has only added to its loyal cult following a comprehensive DVD release of all three seasons. Of course, Colbert’s recent success with CC’s “The Colbert Report” makes now a fine time to introduce the show into the mainstream.
Of course, with its rude humor, off-putting characters and completely un-P.C. sense of humor, the mainstream is hardly the audience to which Strangers With Candy is catering.
Set up as a prequel to the series, Strangers With Candy opens with 46-year-old semi-reformed crack whore Jerri Blank (Sedaris) popping “in and out of prison like a junkie jack-in-the-box.” Finally released on her own recognizance, Jerri returns home only to find her father (Dan Hedaya) in a “stress-induced” coma and the roost ruled over by a nasty new mother-in-law (Broadway actress Deborah Rush). Hoping a little parental pride (after years of witnessing his daughter’s criminal behavior) might snap him out of his coma, Jerri decides to pick up her life right where she left off before the years of sex, drugs and alcohol. In other words: She’s going back to high school to, in her words, “be the good girl I never was and had no desire to be!”
Like the series, Strangers With Candy is set up like a twisted modern update of a cheesy ’70s afterschool special--except that there are copious references to sex and drugs, and nobody ends up learning any sort of proper lesson. Still, the overly sincere acting, the schmaltzy music and the collection of high school stereotypes are in full, satyrical display.
Sedaris obviously still has fun twisting herself into the sloppy, amusingly unappealing role of returning student Jerri Blank. Colbert, always a wiz at faux sincerity, best nails the film’s straight-faced sense of parody as the deeply closeted but born-again science teacher Chuck Noblet. Dinello (who also directs) saves a plumb role for himself as the art teacher not-so-secretly in love with Noblet. The utterly dysfunctional ways in which Colbert and Dinello find to express their rage and frustration are among the film’s highlights. “I need everyone to look at the back of the room,” announces Mr. Noblet as a precursor to his classroom crying jags.
Aside from relying on their own skills, the comic trio manage to recruit a wish list of celebrity pals to perform cameos. Keep your eyes peeled for the likes of Ian Holm, Matthew Broderick, Allison Janney, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Kristen Johnson and Sarah Jessica Parker (who earns the most laughs as a couldn’t-care-less school grief councilor).
Expectedly, the film’s slim storyline--centering around Jerri’s efforts to win the school science fair--ends up looking like a pair of threadbare pantyhose stretched over a too-long clothesline. But, then, that’s to be expected from most TV-to-movie translations. “Strangers With Candy” (the TV show) provides more substance than the average “Saturday Night Live” skit, and the film’s abundance of cleverly crafted jokes manage to keep things watchable from start to finish. Nobody’s showing up in the theater for the plot on this one; it’s all about the laughs. Thankfully, Sedaris and company have plenty to provide.
It’s hard to tell if Strangers With Candy will recruit many newbies not already familiar with the series. This is one of those alternative strains of humor that takes time to grow on you. Sedaris, Colbert and Dinello’s three-way love child has always been happy to sacrifice narrative direction and logic for the sake of a good chuckle, and not everyone will be in on the joke. But fans of the series will have little to complain about, happily laughing it up at a high school gym class that offers “running with the bulls” as an appropriate form of teenage exercise.
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