The long-delayed screen version of the Comedy Central series Strangers with Candy arrives at last. Fans will thrill all over again to the high-school adventures of Jerri Blank (Amy Sedaris), a middle-aged, potbellied ex-prostitute ex-con with the alcohol, drug, and gambling addictions, chipmunk overbite, and droopy eyelid. The unconverted, on the other hand, may well yawn at the film's less-than-inspired antics.
Faux-teenybopper Blank is back in school in the hopes of restoring her comatose dad (Dan Hedaya) to happier days, but in the process she creates havoc for her stepmother, stepbrother, and Flatpoint High School "peers." The latter include Carlo Alban as Indonesian smartie Megawatti Sucarnaputri, Maria Thayer as the bemused Tammi Littlenut, and Everwood's Chris Pratt as the widely desired varsity squat-thruster Brason doomed to be date-raped by Jerri.
True to form, the Strangers with Candy film finds the self-unaware, bisexual Jerri tearing through her own personal Afterschool Special, beginning with amusingly on-the-nose neuroses: "What if the kids don't like me? What if I don't fit in?" What if? This time, the melodramatic rub is a science fair Jerri must win to envigorate dear old Dad. Though Ian Holm's doctor advises her, "You can't reverse 32 years of depravity in a single day," Jerri is not easily dissuaded.
Inarguably, Sedaris has honed her signature character. With the social skills of a drunken sailor ("So where do I stows me stuff?"), Jerri can ruin every social occasion. Prone to bizarre behavior (she lablels her feet "LEFT" and "RIGHT") and absurd situations (gym teacher Kristen Johnson has her run with the bulls), Jerri personifies the awkwardness that powers, and arguably hobbles, the film. Sedaris admirably goes for broke in her tic-filled performance; she's never in repose. In one amusing scene, Jerri tries and fails to sit still and work, surrounding herself with the distractions of snacks, soda, and a foofy pen.
Sedaris created the concept and wrote the film with fellow Second City alumni Stephen Colbert and Paul Dinello, who play teachers and gay lovers. Colbert, in particular, goes a long way to goosing the one-note premise. As Mr. Noblet, the fundamentalist born-again Christian "science" teacher gunning for Galileo and Darwin, Colbert spins the same kind of demented wordplay he perfected on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report ("I wasn't pushing you away—I was pulling me toward myself").
Essentially, this is Sedaris' show, but she, Colbert, and director Dinello get added support from Gregory Hollimon (also a Second City vet) as unpredictable Principal Onyx Blackman, and a guest cast that boasts Justin Theroux, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Matthew Broderick, the latter as Colbert's science-teaching nemesis. Impressed by frequent guest Sedaris, David Letterman produced the film (his first), which the writer-performers gleefully lace with sex, drugs, and show tunes (Colbert, Dinello, and Paul Shaffer co-wrote four original songs).
Finally, Strangers With Candy is the kind of lowbrow spectacle that gets off by naming a receptionist "Iris Puffybush." The outlandish gags are usually good for at least a chuckle, and Colbert's left-field satire classes up the enterprise, but multiplying the tight sitcom half-hour by four may not be a science experiment worth repeating.
[For Groucho's interview with Amy Sedaris, click here.]