STRANGERS WITH CANDY

R
Reviews

In Strangers With Candy, the prequel to the cult Comedy Central series (1999-2001), Jerri Blank (Amy Sedaris), a middle-aged, sorta bisexual, racist junkie whore, is released from a long prison stint and comes home after 32 years to find her Dad in a coma and her new stepmother (Deborah Rush) in charge. Jerri decides to re-enter high school in the hope that this return to her pre-jail "normalcy" will snap her father back to life.

A definite odd woman out among her teenage classmates, Jerri must also contend with her science teacher, Chuck Noblet (Stephen Colbert), who is gay, married and born-again, as well as involved with art instructor Geoffrey Jellinek (Paul Dinello). Chuck is determined to win the science fair with his think tank of brainy Koreans and Jews, who are pitted against a cheerleader/jock faction mentored by snarky visiting professor Roger Beekman (Matthew Broderick).

The film has been kicking around for a while, awaiting release after having been shed by Warner Independent Pictures, and it rather shows in a slightly faded quality. Dinello directed from a screenplay he wrote with Colbert and Sedaris. There's no shortage of nasty laugh lines, like Jerri's wooing a girl by asking her "Do your curtains match the drapes?" and Chuck's rejection of his lover, "I need more out of this relationship than I'm willing to put in, and I think I deserve better than that, don't you? I wasn't pushing you away; I was pulling me toward myself." After a bracingly funny beginning, the film gets bogged down in silly plot permutations and repetitive humor, which was more effective in half-hour television doses.

In the case of the undeniably talented and original Sedaris, who commands a sizeable, quirky cult following, one wants to impress upon her three words: "Less is more." Her face, an eternal brow-furrowed grimace with hideously bucked teeth, while amusing on the television screen, is downright terrifying when blown up to theatrical proportions. Her accompanying performance is every bit as busy and, while often amusing, becomes exhausting. Through the entire film she reminded me of an earlier screen actress with a similarly manic comic intensity, Betty Hutton. Hutton's ravenous energy was gorgeously utilized by Preston Sturges in The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, and one hopes that Sedaris will some day find a similarly gifted auteur to properly harness and exploit her considerable gifts. Broderick, Sarah Jessica Parker, Dan Hedaya, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Allison Janney, Todd Oldham and especially puckish Ian Holm contribute small, colorful turns, but it's mostly a Sedaris-fest, and your reaction to the film will largely depend on how much you love her decidedly unlovable Jerri Blank.

-David Noh