Clever and undeniably peculiar, Strangers with Candy suffers from both a complete lack of focus and a terminal case of self-satisfaction. I’ve never seen the Comedy Central series on which it’s based, but I suspect that the overall concept works better in 30-minute doses than it does here. At feature length, the concept of Amy Sedaris as Jerri Blank, a 46-year-old ex-con, ex-addict of ambiguous sexuality and perhaps three functioning brain cells, can’t seem to find its footing.
Much like early John Waters, Strangers with Candy would be fine in small doses, but the thinness of plot, sameness of jokes and almost complete lack of structure overwhelms the whole. It’s not that the gags in the middle of the film, or at the end, are any less engaging than those at the beginning; they’ve merely become a bit worn out by being in the same key. The idea of spoofing the “after school special” approach to teen propaganda is a pretty solid one in and of itself, but it simply doesn’t lend itself to a feature-length film.
The setup is OK — Jerri gets out of prison and returns home to find things have changed in the intervening 32 years. A nasty step-mother (Deborah Rush, Bad Company) has replaced her real mother (“How can I put this gently? She’s dead.”), and her father (Dan Hedaya, Mulholland Dr.) is in a coma. Her presence, however, sparks some movement in him, causing the doctor (Ian Holm) to suggest that Jerri may be the key to his recovery. The plan? Jerri will go back to high school and redeem herself — an idea that appeals to just about no one, including the school’s faculty.
Principal Onyx Blackman (Greg Hollimon from the TV series) doesn’t want her, but is too busy trying to keep from having his toes cut off over gambling debts and staving off an investigation of misappropriated funds to do much about it. Her science teacher, Chuck Noblet (Stephen Colbert also from the series), is openly hostile at the prospect of any new student, but then he’s a closeted bisexual who is trying to reconcile his sexuality and his job as a science teacher with his newfound born-again Christianity. (His own science book that reads like the King James Bible on acid is almost worth the price of admission.) Making matters worse, he’s just broken up with his boyfriend, the art teacher, Geoffrey Jellineck (director and co-writer Paul Dinello).
Conceptually, this is funny — and some of it is funny (though rarely laugh-out-loud funny) in execution. The problem is that it never really goes anywhere once the characters are established. The closest the film gets to a plot concerns a contest for a science fair presentation. Somehow winning this competition will prove that Principal Blackman hasn’t misappropriated school funding and will get the school inspectors, Alice (Allison Janney, The Hours) and Henry (Philip Seymour Hoffman), off his back. To ensure this happens, Blackman brings in a pretentious ringer, Roger Beekman (Matthew Broderick), who comes complete with his own Boswell named Boswell (David Rakoff).
Just why Blackman allows Noblet and his class to continue with their science project is unclear, but the rivalry between the two factions forms the crux of what passes for plot. When Jerri accidentally betrays her science fair partners by giving the opposition the blueprints for the project, she redeems herself by raising their spirits (“You people are like family — at least the white ones; you darker ones are more like valued family servants.”) and coming up with a project based on something she learned in the slammer. The results are consistently amusing and some of the lines are sharp, but ultimately it’s just too little that goes on too long. Still the very fact that Strangers with Candy attempts something out of the ordinary gives it a few bonus points. Rated R for sexual content, language and some drug material.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke