Thursday, August 17, 2006

Movie Review: "Strangers With Candy"

Starring Amy Sedaris, Stephen Colbert, Paul Dinello, Maria Thayer, Dan Hedaya, Matthew Broderick and Ian Holm
Directed by Paul Dinello

Official Web site

Ask most anyone and they’ll tell you the first day of high school is bit of an intimidator. You’re young, maybe naive and just hoping you don’t make a fool out of yourself.

Now imagine your first day comes more than 30 years after it should and you get an indication of the difficult situation that Jerri Blank finds herself in. The fact that she’s an ex-junkie whore who just got out of prison sure doesn’t help matters.

Played with a comic fearlessness that few comedians possess, Amy Sedaris embraces Jerri in all her politically incorrect, borderline offensive glory. Recreating her role from the cult series that aired for three seasons on Comedy Central in 1999-2000, Sedaris is joined for the big screen version of “Strangers With Candy” by numerous other co-conspirators, including Stephen Colbert and Paul Dinello (who also directs). The three combined on the screenplay, hinging the somewhat flimsy story on a science fair that Jerri hopes will inspire her father (Dan Hedaya) to awaken from a coma presumably brought on by her imprisonment and the death of her mother. Did I mention this is a comedy?

The science fair is of much less interest than the interactions that Jerri has with her family and fellow students. Having mostly learned her social skills and tact from her years in prison, most of her encounters with them don’t go well. But for someone who has likely spent much of her life behind bars, Jerri’s has a remarkably sunny disposition. She strongly desires to be the good little girl that her father never had, yet really doesn’t really want to put out the effort to do so. For example, she brings a cookbook and phonebook with her to class for the first day.

Taking one of the standard scenes featuring new students in school, Jerri is asked to introduce herself to the class by science teacher Chuck Noblet (played with equal parts passion and exasperation by Colbert, of “The Colbert Report,” another Comedy Central show). The fact that Jerri begins her introduction with “My name is Jerri and I’m an alcoholic,” before adding in comments about her years as a prostitute and drug addict, gives you an idea of the movie’s twisted sense of humor. It’s basically as if one of those after-school specials was turned into a bizarre, R-rated feature film.

Although filled with notable supporting and cameo roles featuring Matthew Broderick, Sarah Jessica Parker, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Alison Janney, among others, the success or failure of the movie rests on the small frame of Sedaris. Playing a character that is at times as hideous on the inside as she is on the outside (and that’s saying something), Sedaris should have fans of the show laughing consistently. Those experiencing the character for the first time may be taken aback by Jerri, but should eventually be able to warm up to her “quirks,” one of which includes an unhealthy attraction to Tammi (Maria Thayer), one of her science fair partners.

Then again, there’s probably lots of unhealthy things about Jerri to be concerned about. But with a character as ridiculous and at times, clueless as she is, you’ll likely be too busy laughing to notice. “Strangers With Candy” is both a slight, yet oddly satisfying film that’s filled with heart – albeit one that definitely has an irregular beat to it.

Grade: B+
(Rated R for sexual content, language and some drug material.)

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