Sunday, August 20, 2006
  Theatrical Review: Strangers With Candy

How do you solve a problem like Jerri Blank?

As much as I enjoyed Strangers With Candy, as hard as it made me laugh and as thoroughly as it entertained me, I'm not sure who to recommend this film to.

Well, that's not entirely true. Without question, I enthusiastically recommend the film to fans of the television show from which this hideous, hilarious baby was spawned. I'm a fan of the show myself, and I own all three seasons on DVD. I'm a rabid fan, though, and didn't wait to purchase the entire series in one low-priced box set. I bought the first, second and third seasons on DVD as each one was released separately over the course of two years. It's the only television show I own in it's entirety on DVD. During it's brief, unforgettable run on Comedy Central, Strangers With Candy made me laugh harder than any television show ever, except for The Simpsons.

Still, it's hard to know who to recommend the show itself to. It most certainly isn't for everyone. Strangers With Candy is vulgar, aggressive and downright belligerent. It's also one of the smartest, best written and funniest TV programs I've ever seen.

I'm resisting the urge to get all analytical about the show… but it would be easy to do so. Strangers With Candy was, on the surface, a broad and brassy parody of the after-school-specials that members of my generation grew up watching, and a parody of today's selfish, vacuous culture. The proposition of the program might be summed up this way: How might after-school morality plays come off in an age of moral bankruptcy? How could a culture where anything goes preach to children that some things aren't permissible? What might happen if a society drowning in moral relativism tried to moralize? Strangers With Candy took this principle and ran with it like a freight-train, plowing down every sacred cow that today's culture has propped up. Nothing… absolutely nothing was held sacred by the brilliant writers and performers on Strangers With Candy. Political correctness… mandatory attitudes about race, sex, drugs and cultural tolerance… family values (both real and imagined)… all of these were considered fair game on Strangers With Candy. In my opinion, no television show I've ever seen has ever done a better job of putting a spotlight on societal BS. Strangers with Candy was brilliant, brave and absolutely uproarious. It was far too good to last.

The premise of the show was simple and silly: After 30 years of gutter living, rebellion and subsequent prison sentences, former junkie and prostitute Jerri Blank has returned to her home to try to start over and get her life right the second time around. That second try includes moving back in with her randomly paralyzed father and her hateful stepmother and going back to Flat Point High School, the school she dropped out of when she was a teenager. The program centered on Jerri's interactions with shallow classmates, closeted gay teachers, a self-obsessed principal and her bizarre family. No one on the show… not one single character… was likable, heroic or admirable; least of all Jerri herself. Nonetheless, each episode ended with a mockery of a moral lesson, with Jerri having ostensibly learned something from what she'd experienced during the episode. Typically, what Jerri felt she'd learned was the worst of all possible life-lessons, given the repugnant events that usually transpired during a half-hour episode. Oh, it was all so funny.

What separated Strangers With Candy from South Park (the program to which it is most easily compared) was the writing. The program was created and written by the three actors who played the three principle roles. Amy Sedaris (Jerri herself), Paul Dinello (art teacher Geoffrey Jellineck) and Stephen Colbert (everything-else teacher Chuck Noblet) came up with some wonderfully perverse premises for the program, and each episode typically featured some of the smartest, funniest, satirical dialogue I've ever heard on TV.

As a prequel to the series, the Strangers With Candy movie is a fine 97 minute addition to the TV show's three-season canon. Watching the movie as like watching three brand new and extremely funny episodes of the show back to back. It was, for me, an hour and a half of loud, trembling laughter.

The details of the plot, involving a science fair and Jerri's hope to awaken her father from her coma, are entirely incidental. It's the jokes along the way that make the movie work. Sedaris, Dinello and Colbert have come up with a razor sharp hour-and-a-half of material, here… and I'm going to need to watch the film again to get all the jokes. I'm sure there were times when I was laughing so hard because of one joke that I ended up missing the subsequent one.

Another distraction was the seemingly endless stream of big-star cameos. Strangers With Candy had it's dedicated fans in Hollywood itself, so this theatrical prequel served as a chance for Philip Seymour Hoffman, Sarah Jessica Parker, Sir Ian Holm and Matthew Broderick to get in on the jokes. In that way, this film might be viewed as a celebration of the TV program's enduring (if selective) appeal.

The movie slows down for about 15 minutes toward the end of the second act, actually focusing on the principle conflicts of the story. It ends, though, with a closing twenty minute segment that may be among the funniest scenes I've ever seen in a theater. It's almost impossible to describe it in detail, other than to say that it involves a science fair project that includes belly-dancing, caged racial stereotypes, and an explosion triggered by a battery made out of feces. If you find yourself intrigued, maybe Strangers With Candy is the movie for you. If, however, the very idea disgusts you, you're probably better off staying home and renting The Notebook.

My complaints are minor. That slow 15 minutes was a little bit of a bummer. I was also a little bummed that Jerri never uttered any of her trademarked slogans ("I've got something to SAY!" or "Good times!"). I also expected some good jokes involving Jerri's revolving door of pets, such as turtles, chickens, snakes, etc. Those are minor complaints, though... and only a rabid fan of the show (like me) would even notice them.

I want to give proper credit, too, to Greg Hollimon, the unsung hero of this great comedy (both the TV show and the film). As Principal Onyx Blackman, Hollimon is as fearless and hillarious as anyone else in the film. In fact, some of the gags required of his character were arguably the most demanding in the film. Hollimon should win some kind of award for his brave, hillarious performance here... if only for the G-string alone.

Like the program itself, the centerpiece of the Strangers With Candy film is Amy Sedaris as Jerri Blank. I've heard people talk about actors and actresses who disappear into a role, and I can't think of a better way to describe the way that Sedaris transforms into Jerri. If you've seen one of her many interviews on Letterman, or if you've seen her supporting roles in films like Elf and on TV programs like Sex And The City and Law And Order, you might be amazed that she's capable of playing someone as repulsive as Jerri Blank. Sedaris (the brother of writer David Sedaris and an author herself) is very attractive and demure in real life. I'd almost be tempted to believe that it isn't really her under that wig in the role of Jerri Blank… but I've seen her "turn Jerri on" in interviews and I know how easily she can transform into the character just by changing the way she's holding her eyes and mouth. Jerri Blank is hilarious, irredeemable, and absolutely hideous. The way Amy Sedaris throws herself 100% into this role is a wonder to behold. There is absolutely nowhere she won't take Jerri to get a laugh… and Jerri always gets the laughs.

So, if your skin is thick enough and your sensibilities aren't particularly delicate, and if you enjoy piercing, unrestrained satire, then Strangers With Candy is a must see. It might even turn you onto the criminally under-seen TV show. Just don't go to the theater expecting family fare, political correctness, or a set of lines that won't be crossed. Strangers With Candy crosses all the lines… and finds hilarious stuff on the other side.

"I'm sorry we're late, we came as soon as we felt like it."

I am absolutely thrilled you gave this a positive review. I haven't seen it yet but I saw the trailer and was very nervous.

This is easily the funniest television show I have ever seen. Your use of the word "belligerent" is perfect. You're right, the show and I presume the film is not for everyone. It is crass and very mean but it is so for a reason.

Thanks for the review
Nehring: This is easily the funniest television show I have ever seen.

Well, I'm thrilled to hear you say that, because I know your standards are pretty high. I'm glad to see that you "get it." Yeah, a fan of the show will, I'm sure, enjoy the film. It's everything I'd hoped for. Now, granted, the theatrical experience is always conducive to laughter, so seeing it with a crowd that appreciates it will be a plus. Still, I'm sure that if I'd seen the film on TV by myself, I'd have enjoyed it as much as I enjoyed my favorite episodes of the show (such as Hit And Run and Burden's Burden and my all time favorite, Let Freedom Ring). Go see it and, as Principal Blackman might say, "laugh your monkey ass off." ;)
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