Comedy Central used to bill the TV show "Strangers with Candy" -- which ran on the network from 1999-2000 -- as "the after-hours after-school special." The cult-favorite sitcom harked back to those moralistic made-for-TV teen movies from the 1970s and '80s with titles like "The Boy Who Drank Too Much." With their condescending dialogue and sensitive piano music, the "ABC Afterschool Specials" have inevitably resurfaced as camp artifacts on DVD.
In "Strangers with Candy," the tidy life lessons were invariably lost on anti-heroine Jerri Blank (co-creator Amy Sedaris), a fortysomething former junkie, sex worker and high-school dropout starting life over where she left off: as a freshman. A walking contradiction with a sunny, Florence Henderson-style delivery and crack-ho manners, Jerri's selfish idiocy always led her to the wrong conclusions, like anorexia is good or violence solves problems.
With such a specific small-screen formula as its source material, Strangers with Candy would seem an unlikely movie project, but its fan base must include enough Hollywood decision makers to propel it into the art house. Alas, Strangers with Candy's creators turn out to be as poor students at cinema as Jerri is at everything else. The big-screen "origin story" will disappoint the show's admirers and befuddle everyone else.
Jerri returns home after a lengthy stint in the big house to discover a hostile stepmother (Deborah Rush) and her beloved father (Dan Hedaya) in a coma. When a doctor notices that Jerri's presence makes her dad more responsive, she moves back in and re-enrolls at Flatpoint High, hoping to make her father proud. Her aspirations dovetail with the underdog rivalry between Flatpoint science teacher Mr. Noblet (co-creator Stephen Colbert) and a slick science fair "ringer" played by Matthew Broderick.
The TV show's fast pace and bright, deadpan tone caused viewers to breeze right through its hit-and-miss humor, but on film it proves to be underlit, arbitrary and at times agonizing. As Jerri, Sedaris (sister to humorist David Sedaris) shows a punk rocker's willingness to look grotesque, showing off Jerri's overbite, her unwashed wig and soccer-mom-gone-to-seed padding. And those are her good qualities: She's also racist, profane and sexually obnoxious, hitting on teens of either gender. Sedaris' oversized mugging and awkward body language seem better suited for kabuki theater than a movie comedy.
You can imagine Strangers with Candy expanding its satirical reach to include more cinematic genres like such inspirational-teacher flicks as Dangerous Minds. Instead, it's hard to tell what, exactly, the film is spoofing. It finds a running joke in the on-again, off-again gay love affair between Mr. Noblet and Mr. Jellineck (director Paul Dinello), the "friendly" art teacher. But are they making fun of Noblet for being closeted, or is the spectacle of tortured romance between men meant to be a "laff riot"?
Nevertheless, Colbert affirms his status as a superbly straight-faced comedic foil. Like he shows every night on "The Colbert Report," he can deliver the most nonsensical lines with cocky confidence, like "I wasn't pushing you away, I was pulling me towards myself." At his first appearance, he tells his class that he's a born-again Christian, then teaches from the Bible as his "science book." The film almost immediately drops the golden opportunity to parody religion in the classroom, however.
Occasionally, some of the throwaway jokes connect, like a literal running of the bulls in P.E. class, or the teacher's lounge that features cocktails and piano bar. And it's top heavy with cameos, including Allison Janney, recent Oscar winner Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Sarah Jessica Parker, the latter as a callous guidance counselor with a tip jar on her desk.
Strangers with Candy drops into one of the pitfalls of a post-modern age by trying to carry irony so far that it loses sight of what's supposed to be funny. At times, it emulates the gulf between comedic intent and execution that you find in John Waters' early films. Though Sedaris offers a kind of oversized, outrageous drag show as Jerri Blank, she never matches the screen presence of Waters' muse, Divine. Instead, the most blank thing about Strangers with Candy will be the expressions on audiences' faces.