Strangers with Candy
2005Director: Paul Dinello
Cast: Amy Sedaris, Stephen Colbert, Paul Dinello
desperately wanted to love Strangers with Candy, and felt fairly sure I would. I’ve always had a soft spot for the kind of transgressive comedy found in this movie, the kind of comedy that can just as easily drop your jaw with its offensive-bordering-on-evil punchlines as it can have you doubled over in laughter. With people like Amy Sedaris and Stephen Colbert as the co-stars and writers, and a premise (aging ex-hooker junkie starts life anew by returning to high school) practically guaranteed to set the comic sparks a-blazin’, my anticipation was stoked to a near fever pitch. But alas, as often happens with these things, the end result fell disappointingly short. The film plays less like a movie than an improv skit featuring some enormously talented but extraordinarily undisciplined comedic actors, often appearing to have been written more for the entertainment of the cast itself than the audience viewing it. Despite a few truly brilliant moments, Strangers with Candy features an awful lot more misses than hits.
The raw materials for this movie have been around for a few years. Strangers with Candy was a television show that ran from 1999-2000 on Comedy Central with the general purpose of satirizing the ubiquitous after-school specials that dominated American television since the 1970s. Those shows always featured a high school student getting into trouble and ultimately learning some invaluable Life Lesson (the dangers of premarital sex, the perils of drunk driving, and of course, the necessity of Just Saying No) as the music swelled. Treacly and moralistic, the idea of a series mercilessly mocking those programs with the weekly exploits of a 46-year old drug abusing former prostitute attempting to navigate a suburban high school was almost too good to be true. But the series, while uneven at times, demonstrated relentless comic insight and a wicked sense of satire, in part because of the transcendently funny performances of Sedaris, Colbert, and Paul Dinello (who also directed this film).
Once again, however, a film runs into the familiar problems involved in extending an idea that works for thirty minutes into something feature length. The idea of the movie Strangers with Candy was to create a prequel to the show. Jerri Blank (Sedaris) gets released from prison and returns to her childhood home, determined to set her life on the proverbial right track. When she arrives, however, she discovers her father has remarried and is now in a coma, while her new stepmother does not take kindly to Jerri’s rather gale-force presence. On advice from her father’s doctor (Ian Holm, whose presence is inexplicable), Jerri goes back to high school in a half-baked attempt to revive her father, and gets involved in a complicated series of plot points that somehow ends with her needing to win the Science Fair (don’t ask). Along the way, Jerri has to deal with the usual internecine faculty and student squabbles that define high school, although in this case they tend to be elevated to comic surreality (including an almost Shakespearean gay love affair between two teachers that provides some of the film’s best moments).
The film’s flaws lie not in its promising setup, but in its execution. For all their comedic ability, the Candy crew employs the throw-shit-against-the-wall approach—if something works, they keep it in, and if it doesn’t, well, they keep that in, too. In between the moments of genuine hilarity (and there are some) are far too many gags and one-liners that simply fell flat in the crowded New York theater where I saw the film. I suppose it depends on the audience and its receptivity to the material, but large swaths of this movie are essentially laugh-free. It’s too bad, too, because Sedaris et al are clearly capable of greater things—it’s infrequent, but at times, Strangers with Candy is uproariously funny.
One of the problems with this movie is simply overabundance. The celebrity cameos and walk-ons are impressive for a while, but quickly become obnoxious and thoroughly pointless. It’s a sign of creative desperation when a story featuring the great comic setup this one has finds itself devoting serious time and effort to a plethora of subplots, including one about the rivalry between Colbert’s science teacher and his long-time nemesis, a perennial Science Fair champion played by Matthew Broderick. Broderick is a gifted comic actor who has absolutely nothing to do in this film, which gives him something in common with other comedy veterans who show up, like Third Rock From the Sun’s Kristen Johnson (although his wife, Sarah Jessica Parker, has a hilarious scene as a high school grief counselor).
Strangers with Candy represents something of a lost opportunity. The component parts for a fantastic comedy are all here, though they never cohere into something... well, coherent. Sedaris, Colbert, and Dinello indulge every flight of fancy they have, which may have been fun for them, yet fails to create something that works consistently on the screen. Strangers with Candy has its moments, but there’s one thing this movie needed more than yet another random celebrity cameo—an editor.
Strangers with Candy is currently playing in limited release.