3 stars (out of four)
Jerri Blank is a 47-year-old ex-con junkie-whore, but that doesn't mean she doesn't have a heart. When Jerri (the incomparable Amy Sedaris) and her impressive overbite return home from a 32-year prison stint, she finds her dad (Dan Hedaya) has lapsed into a "stress-induced" coma, which his faithful doctor (Ian Holm) believes is irreversible. Unless, that is, Jerri can pick up her life where she left off: returning to high school and becoming "the good girl she never was and never had any interest in becoming."
This setup will be familiar to the slavishly devoted fans of "Strangers With Candy," the cult favorite that ran for two years on cable TV's Comedy Central. Now, thanks to the advances in movie technology, those same fans, not to mention those who've never seen the show, can spend a full hour and a half communing with 9-foot tall images of Jerri's orthodontic challenges, her lazy eye and her questionable hygiene.
Sedaris (who co-created the show and co-wrote the movie) plays Jerri as a hyper-sexualized woman-child with lecherous tendencies and no understanding of personal space. With '70s-style velour pants hugging her ample bulges in all the wrong places, zero social grace and a mouthful of truly appalling teeth, Jerri is hilariously oblivious to her own lack of appeal, which, of course, makes her enormously appealing. Sedaris, who trained at Second City alongside co-stars and co-creators Stephen Colbert and Paul Dinello, combines a rare gift for comedy with a total lack of vanity. It's an experience not to be missed.
And while comedy may be the most subjective of all movie genres, I feel enormously confident saying this: "Strangers With Candy" is easily the wittiest, most ridiculous and best-written comedy of the year. I normally don't commit this sort of thing to public forums, but one scene made me laugh so hard I snorted water out of my nose. I believe that's never happened before.
When Jerri makes her decidedly non-triumphant return to Flatpoint High School, she's greeted by an array of characters. Again, fans of the show will recognize many of their old friends, including the great and aptly named Onyx Blackman (Gregory Hollimon), who needs to impress two school board members (Allison Janney and Philip Seymour Hoffman) in order to secure "discretionary funds," which he has earmarked to pay off his gambling debts. How to do it? Two words: Science Fair.
Enter Mr. Noblet (Colbert), the closeted born-again Christian who "teaches" science from the Bible and whose ongoing tryst with art teacher Geoffrey Jellineck (director Dinello) causes him no end of psychic angst. This is unfortunate, given that he has no emotional impulse control. His students, including Jerri, respond to him, and to the other many, many dysfunctional faculty members, with poker-faced stares. Mr. Noblet is in direct competition--for principal Blackman's approval and Geoffrey's heart--with Roger Beekman, played with smarmy abandon by Matthew Broderick. (Mrs. Broderick also makes an appearance as a guidance counselor who provides neither guidance nor counsel).
Unlike so many of the comedies released these days, this movie is very aware of its language, which is a strange thing to write about a movie that utilizes extensive bathroom humor. It's true, though: The script works in ways that are both broad and slightly elevated, and part of the joke is that it's assumed we're all elevated enough to get the references. Case in point: One of Jerri's best friends is named Megawatti Sacarnaputri. "Not THAT Megawati Sukarnoputri," he assures Jerri when they're introduced. Indonesian political dynasties were never so much fun.
Even if, by the movie's final 20 minutes, things start to slow down, it's impossible to hold a grudge. Sedaris is to be congratulated, not only for her tremendous bravery in the face of tough wardrobe choices but for sticking by Jerri for the past six years. That kind of commitment, just like really tight velour, looks good on everyone.
'Strangers with Candy'
Directed by Paul Dinello; screenplay by Stephen Colbert, Dinello and Amy Sedaris; photographed by Oliver Bokelberg; edited by Michael R. Miller; music by Marcelo Zarvos; production design by Teresa Mastropierro; produced by Mark Roberts, Lorena David and Valerie Schaer Nathanson. A Think Film release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:27. MPAA rating: R (for sexual content, language and some drug material)..
Jerri Blank - Amy Sedaris
Sara Blank - Deborah Rush
Megawatti Sacarnaputri - Carlo Alban
Tammi Littlenut - Maria Thayer
Chuck Noblet - Stephen Colbert
Roger Beekman - Matthew Broderick