Strangers with Candy / Jeremy C. Fox
Film Reviews | July 17, 2006 | Comments ()
The 1999-2000 television series “Strangers with Candy” started from a simple but diabolically brilliant premise. Its creators — Amy Sedaris, Paul Dinello, Stephen Colbert, and Mitch Rouse — based their central character, Jerri Blank, on real-life junkie-whore-turned-motivational-speaker Florrie Fisher, then built every episode around themes from old “Afterschool Specials,” replacing the typical troubled teen with a middle-aged woman without a single redeeming characteristic and a desire to be socially accepted and sexually successful greater even than any adolescent. Each episode set up a new, disturbing question: How would a person with an addictive personality and no moral limits respond to peer pressure? What might a former junkie use to induce the popular kids to come to her party? How does a homely, middle-aged woman run for homecoming queen? Without fail, Jerri’s misadventures led her to exactly the wrong moral conclusion, to the delight of the show’s cult following.
I drank the Kool-Aid around three years ago, when a friend introduced me to the series on DVD, and I’ve been looking forward to the movie ever since its premiere at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival. With the same great cast and writers, a running time more than quadruple that of a single episode, and the freedom of an R-rating to really go nuts with the sexual innuendo and drug references, how could it not be wall-to-wall with good, dirty fun? Well, let me tell you. …
The film starts off promisingly, with a montage of Jerri’s dissolute life and violent prison experiences, played for bathos. The series began in medias res, with no real explanation of how Jerri came in off the streets and reenrolled as a 46-year-old freshman at Flatpoint High, so the film fills in the gaps, showing Jerri’s return home after being released from prison and her decision to pick up her old life right where she left off. Much of the series’ original cast has returned: In addition to Sedaris, Dinello, and Colbert, Greg Hollimon returns as Principal Blackman, Sarah Thyre as Coach Wolf, Dolores Duffy as Iris Puffybush, Maria Thayer as Tammi Littlenut, Deborah Rush as Sara Blank, and David Pasquesi as Stew the Meat Man. But Joseph Cross has replaced Larc Spies as Derrick Blank, Jerri’s stupid, hateful half-brother, and the character of Orlando Pinatubo (played by Orlando Pabotoy), the Filipino butt of a thousand monkey and coconut jokes from Jerri, has been entirely reimagined as the Indonesian Megawatti Sacarnaput (Carlo Alban). And as Jerri’s father, Guy Blank, Dan Hedaya has replaced Roberto Gari, and Guy’s catatonic state, never really addressed in the series, is now ascribed to a coma he slipped into shortly after Jerri’s disappearance led to her distraught mother’s death.
When Jerri returns home after her 32 years of depravity, a slight movement from Guy leads his doctor to believe that Jerri’s presence might help him recover. She decides to stick around and become the model daughter she never was or wanted to be, all in the hope that by changing her ways she can bring Guy back from the brink. For a series that never trafficked much in logic anyway, this is as reasonable a premise as any, I suppose, but by explaining her father’s condition, the film does away with the non-sequitur absurdity that made it funny in the first place.
The central cast is propped up by a series of celebrity cameos that are ultimately more distracting than amusing: There’s Ian Holm as Guy Blank’s doctor; Allison Janney and Philip Seymour Hoffman as school board members; Kristen Johnston as a physical education teacher; Justin Theroux teaching drivers’ ed; Sarah Jessica Parker as an insensitive, self-involved grief counselor; and Matthew Broderick as Roger Beekman, the nemesis of Colbert’s Chuck Noblet. The film’s central conflict arises out of the competition between Noblet and Beekman to assemble a team that can win the school’s science fair, with the students and Noblet’s spurned lover Mr. Jellineck (Dinello) pawns in their pissing contest and Jerri — the weakest link both ethically and intellectually — caught in the middle.
At its best, an episode of the series felt like an hour’s worth of comedy crammed into 22 minutes, while the movie feels more like an hour’s worth of comedy stretched out to feature length. There are some great sick jokes and blink-and-you-miss-‘em sight gags tucked into every corner, but the film recycles so many scenes and lines from the series that it might almost be a clip show. Paradoxically, it will probably be funnier and more satisfying to those who weren’t already fans of the series; only they can have the naughty pleasure of seeing it all for the first time. Worse than the self-plagiarism, though, is the slack, inconsistent pacing — Dinello, though an asset to the show as both a writer and an actor, is directing his first feature, and the comic timing that serves him well as a performer seems to have deserted him almost entirely.
Sedaris, Colbert, and Dinello began working together back in the ’80s, in the Chicago improv troupe Second City, and their work on the series had the loose, anything-can-happen quality of improv. But the material here feels worked to death; it’s like watching a play whose cast has been in the same roles far too long and lost their vigor and spontaneity. They don’t even take advantage of the opportunity the R-rating gives them to go farther than the television series; if anything, the jokes seem tamer and less likely to offend — particularly in comparison to the gleefully amoral early episodes — though that may be due in part to the desensitization I’ve experienced after watching the full three seasons. It may also be that, as a friend suggested, after 10 seasons of “South Park,” the resurrection of “Family Guy,” the recent slew of gross-out comedies, and the real horrors of everyday life in a period of interminable war, it’s almost impossible to create the same transgressive thrills that you could a few years back. Or maybe it’s simply that the early positive buzz and the long period of anticipation just raised my hopes too much: I wanted so badly to love the film that I may have made it impossible for myself. It’s a sign of how deeply I’ve internalized the series that, when I consider my dashed hopes, I can’t help but hear a little Mr. Jellineck in my head singsonging, “If wishes and buts were clusters of nuts, we’d all have a bowl of granola.”
Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.