Amy Sedaris is completely fearless when it comes to her alter ego, Jerri Blank, of STRANGERS WITH CANDY. First in the too brief television series that garnered a fanatic cult following, and now with the big screen version of same, which, freed from the bonds of basic cable standards and practices, takes flight with the naughty words and situations that could only be imagined before. It’s not just the wardrobe stuffed with ungainly padding, or the make-up application that recalls Jackson Pollock’s most daring period, or even the prosthetic teeth that give her the aspect of an inquisitive if befuddled, squirrel that she uses to portray Jerri, the eternally chipper recovering alcoholic ex-junkie, and ex-con with a gambling addiction and a penchant for inappropriate bonding with whatever is at hand who has returned to high school 32 years after running away from home. Rather, it’s the way she plays it absolutely straight, mining questionable material and coming up with the solid gold comedy that few others could have found. She makes Jerri’s born-again wide-eyed innocence rock solid, even when unselfconsciously describing the mechanics of a sex act called The Rusty Trombone. I am relieved to report that she didn’t get too far into the description.
There is never a wink, nor a nod at the audience from Sedaris or her co-writers Paul Dinello, who plays art teacher Geoffrey Jellineck, a free spirit with no sense of direction, and Stephen Colbert, who plays Chuck Noblet, the science teacher with the fragile emotions, a raging case of self-absorption, and a paradigm torn from the pages of the potboiler variety of hard-boiled detective fiction. Nor is there winking or nodding from the rest of the cast, which is peppered liberally with surprise cameos by people who must be among that fanatic cult following I was talking about before.
The film is a prequel to the series in which is explained how Jerri, newly liberated from prison, returns to the bosom of the family she ditched three decades earlier. There have been a few changes, Daddy (Dan Hedaya) has remarried, despite being in a coma since Jerri left, to a woman (Deborah Rush), who is less than pleased at the prodigal’s return. There is also an obnoxious step-brother (Joseph Cross), and the step-mother’s constant companion, referred to by everyone as the Meat Man. Probably because he is the local butcher, but nothing should be assumed here.
Jerri’s return sparks Daddy’s first reaction to outside stimuli in years, and so his doctor (Ian Holm) prescribes Jerri’s continued presence to speed his recovery. Well it would speed the recover if that boat hadn’t already sailed in the 1980s.
But I digress.
Distracted by a pending investigation by the Board of Education, Principal Blackman (Greg Hollimon), against all reason, approves Jerri’s return to Flatpoint High. Once back in the heaving whirlpool of hormones and cliques, Jerri struggles to fit, lusting for blonde Adonis Brason (Chris Pratt), the star of the school’s varsity squat-thrust team, but settling for the too-grateful Megawatti (Carlo Albon) and the skiddish Tammi (Maria Thayer) for best friends. On her first day back she signs up for the annual regional science fair in order to make daddy proud and aid in his recovery. Alas, she and her pals are unaware of the machinations behind that contest, and the ends to which Principal Blackman will go to win it in order to save himself from a felony conviction. That includes bringing in a ringer (Matthew Broderick), who wins regional science fairs with his flair for self-promotion and production numbers.
There is nothing sacred here in the temple of the absurd, this shrine to dada-esque non-sequitors, except maybe for the crucifix in Noblet’s classroom, the one he installed after hitting bottom and recovering by embracing a particularly severe form of Christianity and deciding that Darwinism was the work of Satan and that the proper textbook for his class in the Bible. But, as I said before, it’s probably best not to assume anything.
STRANGERS WITH CANDY is like that After School Special some of us were secretly hoping would happen one day. The one where it all goes horribly wrong in delightfully interesting ways instead of sticking to the moral high ground with that prissy and predictable moral lesson to be learned. Take that delicious twist, then cross it with BLACKBOARD JUNGLE by way of a fluffy porno flick. There are a few misses, but for the most part what results is a hotbed of bad behavior, a large black man in a teeny-tiny speedo, and a happy ending that does teach a lesson, but one that would have made those milquetoasts from the After School Special wretch up their collective pancreas in horror.