There are few things in high school more pathetic than seeing a student trying desperately to fit in with the popular crowd and failing miserably. That is, unless that student is a 47-year-old ex-junkie with the disposition of rancid milk and a libido on overdrive. But that is exactly what writers Paul Dinello, Stephen Colbert and Amy Sedaris chose for the premise of their wickedly dark Comedy Central series "Strangers with Candy" (1999-2000) in which they all starred. Satirizing after-school specials that present and tidily resolve given problems in half an hour, the show boasted a winning blend of sharp social observations and bizarre storylines that earned it a loyal cult following. Paul Dinello took directing duty for the series' shift to the big screen, retaining most of its overall appeal, but like most other feature adaptations of TV shows, this one tries too hard to stretch out an idea that ultimately plays better in smaller doses.
Amy Sedaris seizes the role of Jerri Blank, who quit school at the age of 15 and turned to a life of drug addiction and prostitution that landed her in prison. After 32 years of complete depravity, she is released from prison and decides to resume life right where she left off—in high school. To her dismay, however, there have been a few changes. She returns home to find her father remarried since the death of her mother and in a self-induced coma. Her stepmother (Deborah Rush) is having an affair with the meat man and wants Jerri out of the house, while her stepbrother (Joseph Cross) thinks she's a loser. But Jerri refuses to be brought down, setting her sights on reviving her father by being successful in high school and proving that she is special (it's best not to question the logic here).
High school only presents further challenges for Jerri. In addition to finding herself immediately ostracized by the popular girls, she is shown no sympathy from the school faculty who are all immensely self-absorbed and preoccupied with their own tribulations. Principal Blackman (Greg Hollimon) has come under fire from the school board who are prepared to fire him unless he can provide verifiable proof that his students are learning. Science teacher Chuck Noblet (Stephen Colbert) lectures on his newfound belief in Christianity while secretly carrying on a homosexual affair with ultra sensitive art teacher Geoffrey Jellineck (Paul Dinello). Astoundingly, the solution to all of their problems may lie in the upcoming science fair. If a team from his school can win, this may be the evidence that Blackman needs to keep his job. By representing different teams, Noblet and Jellineck compete to confirm their independence of each other. Most importantly, this may just be what Jerri needs in order to prove that she is special and wake her father from his coma.
Before you start feeling all gooey and warm inside, there are a few things we need to get straight about Jerri. She is a horrible excuse for a human being. With thinning bleached hair, enormous overbite, and saddlebags, she presents a hideous physical appearance, and her inner qualities are no improvement. Although apparently clean and sober, she has lost none of her immoral sensibilities. In her fruitless attempts to fit in and catch the attention of the school hunk (Chris Pratt), Jerri openly derides her unpopular friends and will stop at nothing to get what she wants. On a lighter note, in spite of her blatant heterosexuality, Jerri has carried over some potent lesbian tendencies from prison and repeatedly hits on her only female friend, Tammi Littlenut (Maria Thayer). Jerri is a vile, contemptuous person who would not garner anything close to sympathy in real life, and yet Amy Sedaris somehow manages to make her utterly endearing, even during her most horrific behavior.
The whole cast consistently hits the ball out of the park with their performances. What separates "Strangers with Candy" from other high school comedies, or from most mainstream comedies in general, is the cast's total dedication to their parts. Colbert, Dinello, Hollimon, Rush, and Thayer all repeat their roles from the series, and they truly inhabit them. These are not comedians being funny, but actors becoming characters. Not once do we see them winking at the camera or acknowledging the humor of the scene. They sell these characters with everything they have. The young actors in this film are no slackers either. Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Harnois (as the popular girl), and Carlo Alban (as Jerri's put-upon friend Megawatti) play their roles with straight-faced believability, avoiding the forced and cliché-ridden performances so common in most teen movies.
A lot of credit must be given to screenwriters Sedaris, Colbert and Dinello for creating such twisted characters in the first place and for putting them in equally twisted situations. The whole science fair plot is about as thin and predictable as it can be, but it is merely a springboard for the writers to jump into increasingly outrageous, off-putting, politically incorrect moments. There is even one genuinely Buñuelian moment in which a running of the bulls is held in gym class!
Unfortunately, there are also some glaring problems with the film version of "Strangers with Candy." First is the distracting onslaught of celebrity cameos. Matthew Broderick, Sarah Jessica Parker, Kristen Johnston, and Justin Theroux all appear to little or no effect. In a film that benefits so greatly from its cast of relatively unknown actors to make the characters all the more believable, the sight of Sarah Jessica Parker playing a neurotic guidance councilor or of Justin Theroux as an aggressive driving instructor takes us out of the movie and smacks of Hollywood gimmickry. Still, Allison Janney and Philip Seymour Hoffman provide humorous turns as a couple of school board representatives, and Sir Ian Holm (yes, Sir Ian Holm!) is charming as the family doctor.
Another problem here is one that plagues just about every film based on a TV series. What works so brilliantly in a regular 22-minute episode eventually starts to wear a little thin around the halfway mark. For all of its inventiveness, the movie is just never as all-out hilarious or even as biting as the series. Maybe it's just because the extra padding reduces the impact of the funnier scenes. This ultimately makes it difficult to recommend the film for those uninitiated with the original program. On the one hand, it comes across as a slightly gentler version of a series that could be extremely disorienting to new viewers, but at the same time it fails to do the show full justice and could potentially be a misrepresentation. The safest bet is for those who have already seen (and love) the series. For what it's worth, I laughed harder during sporadic parts of this film than I have through most entire high school comedies.
"Strangers with Candy" comes to DVD by way of THINKFilm in an anamorphic 1.85:1 widescreen transfer. The overall image is generally good, though it is a tad dark with fairly unremarkable colors. Some grain is evident through most of the film, and there are some occasional flecks, but they are not a major distraction, especially given that this is not an overly visual movie. Black levels are solid, and contrast looks good. There appears to be no edge enhancement or compression artifacting. For a recent film, this is not the best transfer imaginable, but it is acceptable.
The audio is presented in both Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 Surround options. As the film makes scantly significant use of sound effects or ambience, there is little to really distinguish the two tracks. They are surprisingly similar, with the majority of the sound in the 5.1 track directed toward the front channel. Dialogue is clear though slightly muted in both tracks. Spanish subtitles are also available.
A hilarious audio commentary is provided by Amy Sedaris, Paul Dinello, and Stephen Colbert. Their witty recollections and anecdotal humor provide the perfect accompaniment to this film, and the chemistry between them is in clear evidence here. Any longtime fan of the series will surely appreciate this extended opportunity to hear the three together.
About 20 minutes of deleted scenes follow. Some are funny. Most aren't. This was especially disappointing after hearing some of the things mentioned during the commentary that had to be cut from the film. Apparently the funniest deleted moments remain deleted from the DVD as well.
Next up is a music video for "Atomic Car," a song featured in the movie, written by Delano Grove, Stephen Colbert, and Paul Dinello and performed by Delano Grove. This extremely weird video is a montage of footage of Dolores Duffy as Iris Puffybush, the school secretary. Like the deleted scenes, it's not as funny as one would expect.
Lastly we have a trailer for the film and a gallery of trailers for other DVD releases.
Jerri Blank is a seminal character in cult TV history, and though she is absolutely repulsive, she will always be held in high esteem by lovers of "Strangers with Candy." The film debut of this character has its ups and downs, but its ups significantly overshadow its downs, and it definitely trumps over most other recent entries in the teen comedy genre. Amy Sedaris, Stephen Colbert, and Paul Dinello succeed with their dedicated performances and the sheer audacity of their writing. Although they are probably best represented on the small screen, there is much to enjoy in this extended episode. THINKFilm's DVD is only adequate in its presentation, but the film deserves a look, especially from fans of the series, for the dark world that it so humorously encapsulates.