'Strangers With Candy': Tastier In Bite-Size Pieces

From cult TV hit to big screen: Ex-con Jerri Blank (Amy Sedaris) returns to high school.
From cult TV hit to big screen: Ex-con Jerri Blank (Amy Sedaris) returns to high school. (Thinkfilm)
By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 7, 2006

The very sight of this -- and we feel comfortable with this description -- ex-jailbird, ex-junkie prostitute will set her cult fans giggling. Her name is Jerri Blank and, as played with sour-mouthed conviction by Amy Sedaris, she's so grotesquely unpalatable, well, she's a comedic scream.

That's the central conceit of "Strangers With Candy," the Comedy Central TV series that ran for three seasons, and the movie of the same name -- which purports to be the prequel. Jerri's a forty-something loner with the aforementioned highly checkered past, who attempts to remake herself by returning to high school. The comedy comes when her prison ways clash with her attempts to navigate adolescent academia. She orders food at the school canteen with over-the-top swagger, for instance, to show everyone she's no patsy, and makes a sexual pass at a female student like a jail bully, promising to treat her right "as long as you don't get out of line."

But though "Strangers" the movie has its share of laugh-out-loud moments, its fleshing out of the story of Jerri's life -- her past and her relationships with family, friends and staff -- blunts the original show's jagged satire. And of all ironies, "Strangers" occasionally takes a step in the direction of the after-school specials it's trying to twit; you'll catch it trying to make you feel warm and fuzzy about Jerri.

The movie, starring most of the original performers (and a surprisingly glitzy celebrity cast for a redo of a small cult series), recounts the events that led to Jerri's return to high school. After a 32-year-absence, most of it spent in jail, she's shocked to find her father (Dan Hedaya) comatose, her mother dead and her childhood home overrun by Daddy's new wife, Sara (Deborah Rush), and their teenage son, Derrick (Joseph Cross). Dad's in a coma, Dr. Putney (Ian Holm) explains, thanks to Jerri's longtime disappearance and his wife's subsequent death.

When Jerri's bedside presence induces a stir from her father, Dr. Putney urges her to stay home until he comes around. Jerri agrees, and decides it's time to try school again and be the student and daughter she never was.

As Jerri, Sedaris (whose brother is iconic essayist David Sedaris) aims for a comedy nestled somewhere between John Waters gross-out humor and the more intellectual satire of Larry David's "Curb Your Enthusiasm." But her shtick is too whiny and one-dimensional to entertain beyond a 30-minute TV episode. After an hour and a half of watching that contorted mouth and listening to that nasal delivery, even her most die-hard fans could get sick of Jerri.

The best material belongs to the teachers at Jerri's school, including science instructor Chuck Noblet (Stephen Colbert), who has found God and abandoned his scientific beliefs for creationism. He's also irredeemably narcissistic and has a deep crush on goofy art teacher Geoffrey (Paul Dinello, also the movie's director). Then there's Onyx Blackman (Greg Hollimon), the perpetually scheming principal who has no filter when it comes to self-serving impulses. (This convergence of amusing characters should come as no surprise: Sedaris, Colbert and Dinello, former members of Chicago's Second City comedy troupe, are the writers and creators of the TV show.)

When incoming student Jerri hands him her letter of introduction, for instance, Noblet crumples it into a ball and, after a profane outburst hurls it against the blackboard. Jerri and the class are silent. After taking a moment to compose himself, Noblet turns to the class with a demented look of false glee on his face.

"We have a new student," he says.

This oddball humor works better in the TV show, where random quirkiness is part of the ethos. But in the movie, these moments are few and far between, and we're left sitting through routine exposition, waiting for the funny bits. As for the marquee guests, including Philip Seymour Hoffman and Allison Janney as eccentric school board members, Matthew Broderick as a traveling Science Fair coach and Sarah Jessica Parker as a grief counselor, their names may draw newbies to the franchise, but they elicit few outright guffaws. In the end, "Strangers" is the wrong nostalgia -- the kind that tries to relive the show's funnier days with such mediocre renditions, you're hard-pressed to appreciate what was so funny in the first place.

Strangers With Candy (97 minutes, at Landmark's E Street Cinema) is rated R for nudity, sexual content, profanity and drug use.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company