Completely random and subversive humor, as seen in Strangers with Candy, isn't a new concept to comedy. Bringing in jokes out of left field was the heart and soul of Anchorman, and the current blockbuster Borat is mining the same sort of comedic gold. But the problem with this not-so-eagerly-awaited (by me, at least) movie version of the cult Comedy Central show, is that it thinks being outrageous and shocking is something new.
Strangers with Candy, a sort of more profane twist on Napoleon Dynamite, is a hit-and-miss comedy that suffers from too many of the latter moments to make the former instances any more enjoyable. It follows the misadventures of Jerri Blank (Amy Sedaris), a boozed-up, sex-crazed former junkie, who, after 32 years of turning tricks and doing time in prison, has finally decided to come home to settle. Unfortunately, she arrives to find that her dad (Dan Hedaya) has re-married and is also stuck in a self-induced coma, brought on by Jerri's running away from home. When he begins to show signs of movement, Jerri surmises that the only way to wake him up for good is to pick up where she left off and enroll in high school -- at the spry age of 47.
As it turns out, school is every bit as bizarre as Jerri's life, what with the art teacher (Paul Dinello) and science teacher (Stephen Colbert) engaged in a none-too-subtle lover's spat and a principal (Greg Hollimon) desperate to get his hands on more school funding (to pay off the bookies, of course). When Jerri learns of an upcoming science fair, she decides to go for it and try to win for the sake of waking up her dad -- unless she manages to offend everyone within a five-mile radius in the process.
Strangers with Candy has almost the same effect as Sarah Silverman: Jesus Is Magic: both rely upon a comedienne saying things that would make your grandmother blush as the foundation of their collective humor; and these two films feature stars who seem to be saying this stuff for the sake of saying it, without any wit or backbone supporting their statements.
Strangers with Candy at least has something of a leg up, as it comes across as a low-key assault on high school movies and the cliches that they spewed forth into Movieland. However, although the flick picks a mighty fine target, its biggest flaw involes its own main character. Will Ferrell's Ron Burgundy was a sexist oaf, but he was so misguided and dumb that you had to love him the way you love a dog that chases its own tail. Sascha Baron Cohen's Borat is dense and racist, but the character has been used to expose other peoples' ignorance and prejudice. Jerri Blank, on the other hand, is every bit as unpleasant as she's supposed to be, and that's the problem. She's foul-mouthed, disregards such trivial things as other peoples' personal space, and is a self-serving harpy -- and that's it. Sedaris spends so much time making Jerri unlikable, she succeeds, and viewers are then stuck with having to follow around the world's worst heroine for an hour and a half.
What's also so disappointing about Strangers with Candy is that it isn't a two-bit comedy thrown together by people who had nothing better to do.There's serious talent involved here, including Sedaris (someone I've enjoyed in her various talk show appearances) and fellow Comedy Central funnyman Stephen Colbert, both of whom co-wrote the script. The film does have a few choice moments, especially Colbert's overly-dramatic antics and some random cameos (the best of which is Sarah Jessica Parker's turn as a grief counselor who couldn't care less about the students), but as far as storytelling goes, Strangers with Candy unexpectedly plays it straight.
A big, satirical pie is staring the filmmakers right in the face here, but they're too afraid to dig in, opting to take weak and ineffective potshots at their targets while trying to support the movie with a rather inconsequential plot taken somewhat seriously. (Do you know how sad it is to sit back and say that Not Another Teen Movie did a better job of parodying high school movies?).
Although I wasn't a fan of Strangers with Candy when it was a television show, I gave the movie an honest shot. In the end, it wasn't as much of a comedic wasteland as I had predicted, but when it comes to dealing out laughs, Strangers with Candy gets a D+.
MY RATING: ** (out of ****)
(Released by ThinkFilm and rated "R" for sexual content, language and some drug material.)