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Strangers With Candy

Back to School

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Oh, woe is the television sketch comedy that makes a mad scramble for the big screen. What was howlingly funny in 20-minute bursts ingested a week apart feels padded and repetitive during a 90-minute run. The latest victim of such upsizing is Strangers With Candy, an adaptation of Comedy Central's erstwhile cult-comedy about a middle-aged loser returning to high school.

 

Fans of the show will note happily that the original Strangers' brain trust is back. Co-creators Amy Sedaris, Stephen Colbert and Paul Dinello wrote the script; all three reprise their roles; and Dinello also plops down in the director's chair.

 

The film is ostensibly a prequel to the series, though it offers familiar elements: Forty-six-year-old ex-junkie/hooker/girl-thug Jerri Blank (Sedaris) is getting out of jail and returning home after two-plus decades of debauchery. The plot is as basic as the after-school specials Strangers mocks: If Jerri could do something special ... say, win the high school Science Fair ... her dad (Dan Hedaya) might awaken from his stress-induced coma. Too bad the Bible-thumping science teacher, Mr. Noblet (Colbert, full of truthiness), despises her.

 

Sedaris is that rare female comedian willing to abandon all vanity in the name of art: From the tip of her PTA-gone-to-hell swooped hairdo past her pinched brow and glum overbite, to her prosthetic beer belly and saddlebags barely contained by too-tight clothing, she genuinely looks terrible. But her kooky costume, broad mugging and throwaway non-sequiturs aren't enough to sustain this thin film.

 

Part of Jerri's appeal (in small doses) is that she is unlikable. With the TV show, there was something exhilarating about heralding an ugly, selfish, middle-aged deviant within the confines of the small-screen teen-genre that relentlessly celebrates beautiful youth. Stretched over 90 minutes, the burden of the film's generic plot inclines us to root for Jerri, but it's hard to truly hang your hat on her.

 

That's partly because Strangers treads that murky comedic area between deadpan and exaggeration. That often means the real gag is the whole darn thing itself ... a free-floating self-indulgent satire less dependent on jokes than on a coterie of fans that "get it." That coy insiderness may be enough to pilot fans through this poorly paced film with its alarming pockets of dead unfunny air, but I suspect newcomers will be unamused.

 

Despite its strenuous slapstick moments, some of cleverest bits were the least obvious, like the groovy mish-mash of science and creationism tchotchkes that cluttered Mr. Noblet's desk, or how on her first day at school, the pathetic Jerri totes an armload of "schoolbooks" to look like the other kids. Sharp eyes will catch that the academic tomes are a phone book and the 1970s-vintage nature book, A Golden Treasury of Mushrooms.

 

 

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