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Strangers with Candy

Bizarre, Twisted, but Ultimately Uneven

Premised as a prequel to the Comedy Channel series created by Paul Dinello, Stephen Colbert, and Amy Sedaris, Strangers with Candy is a twisted, often funny parody of the heavy-handed "Afternoon Specials" that used to run on the ABC television network several decades ago. Stretched from a half-hour comedy to a feature-length film, however, Strangers with Candy proves that 45 minutes worth of spot-on parody followed by 45-minutes worth of increasingly desperate gags and jokes don’t add up to a feature-length film.

Geraldine "Jerri" Antonia Blank (Amy Sedaris), a 46-year old ex-junkie, ex-hooker, and ex-con, returns home after 32 years. She gets a shock when she discovers a strange woman, Sara (Deborah Rush), answering the door to her parents' house. Sara's the new Mrs. Blank and Jerri's stepmother. Jerri's father, Guy Blank (Dan Hedaya), slipped into a stress-induced coma some time after Jerri left home. Jerri also discovers that she has a half-brother, Derrick (Joseph Cross), a foul-mouthed, wannabee jock who takes an instant dislike to her. Guy's doctor, Dr. Putney (Ian Holm), thinks Jerri's return can be beneficial to Guy’s long-postponed recovery. Guy doesn’t stir from his coma, though, so Dr. Putney suggests Jerri do something big, something that just might wake Guy from his coma.

Jerri comes up with a brilliant idea: re-starting her life from the point where everything began to go wrong: high school. In short order, Jerri re-enrolls in high school as a freshman, her first day the second time around. An oddball among outcasts, she befriends Megawatti Sucarnaputri (Carlo Alban) and Tammi Littlenut (Maria Thayer), while pining away for the local jock, Brason (Chris Pratt). Jerri's unconventional behavior doesn't endear her to the principal, Onyx Blackman (Greg Hollimon), or her science teacher, Charles "Chuck" Noblet (Stephen Colbert), whose relationship with the art teacher, Geoffrey Jellineck (Paul Dinello), causes more than a few problems. Jerri’s second brilliant idea: join the science team and help her high school win the upcoming science fair. Principal Blackman, desperate to ensure his school wins the science fair, brings in Roger Beekman (Matthew Broderick), a science teacher from another school to run the “A” science team.

For better or worse -- probably worse -- Strangers with Candy centers on revisiting that awkward time in high school when fitting in to the clique of choice was, if not impossible, then improbable, barring miraculous intervention. Jerri’s problems stem from her being out with the in-crowd and in with the out-crowd. Between Jerri’s desire to join the in-crowd and over-inflated ego, Jerri has to choose between hanging out with the uncool kids or trying to work her way into the good graces of the beauty queens and jocks who more or less run the high school. Not surprisingly, Jerri makes some bad, actually terrible decisions that come back to bite her in the rear, but when all is said and done, she finds redemption or as much redemption as a delusional 46-year old freshman in high school has a chance of finding. And yes, a great deal of it is funny, painfully funny in the way recognizing ourselves in a character can be (relief in knowing we’re watching a fictional universe onscreen usually follows).

More importantly (and less seriously), Strangers with Candy manages to throw in enough off-kilter, offensive jokes and gags in the first 45-minutes to keep audiences either rolling their eyes or laughing in “did they just do that?” incredulity. Unfortunately, once the movie focuses almost exclusive on the science fair competition, it begins to lose dramatic and comedic momentum until the obligatory "show-stopping" finale (it isn’t) and never recovers.

Slipping in cameos by Philip Seymour Hoffman (as a board of education member), Allison Janney (likewise), Kristen Johnston (as a wheelchair-bound gym teacher), and Sarah Jessica Parker (as a burnt out grief counselor) helps, but they inevitably take away as much or more than they contribute. Ultimately, Strangers with Candy plays best to fans of the series or curious moviegoers who’ve always wanted to give the television series a chance, but never did. Although, the prequel might not be the best place to start.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars