There’s undoubtedly an audience out there for this revival of–or more accurately a sort of prequel to–the similarly-titled series that ran for several seasons on Comedy Central before being canceled in 2001, which was a sort of perverse take-off on the monitory after-school specials about dangers lurking for youngsters in the hallways and along the streets. But it will be pretty much limited to those who were devotees of the earlier incarnation. To the uninitiated “Strangers With Candy” is likely to be a rather gruesome exercise in cheap humor and even cheaper execution, one of those supposedly hip movies that you’ll probably leave with a distinctly sour taste in your mouth.
The heroine of the tale, to use the term very loosely, is homely, self-absorbed skank Jerri Blank (Amy Sedaris), just released from jail, who returns home to find her father (Dan Hedaya) not only remarried to a gold-digger (Deborah Rush) but in a coma. (The stepmom also has an insufferable son and a live-in male friend.) The oddball family doctor (Ian Holm) tells Jerri that if she changes her life for the better, it might shock daddy out of his condition, so she goes back to high school to succeed where she’d once failed. There she has to contend with a wacko teacher (Stephen Colbert) and mostly contemptuous classmates, but bonds with the other outcasts, most notably Megawatti (Carlo Alban), who for some unfathomable reason is attracted to her and embraces the idea of getting the brains to join her in a science fair project being promoted by self-aggrandizing principal Mr. Black (Gregory Hollimon), who’s just been dressed-down by the school board for financial irregularities and hopes to recoup his fortunes by fielding a winning team. Thinking that Colbert’s group might not do so well, though–especially since the teacher seems a wreck because of his collapsed relationship with the gonzo art instructor (Paul Dinello)–the principal brings in an ace in the hole, smirkingly arrogant science fair legend (Matthew Broderick), to put together a second team. Unfortunately, one of the members of that rival group is the hunky athlete (Chris Pratt) that Jerri has lusted after even since setting eyes on him, and he when he pretends to romance her in order to steal her team’s secrets, she’s very willing to be seduced and betray her friends. Of course, things don’t end there; and the last reel amounts to a chaotic but resoundingly unfunny riff on the old “let’s put on a show” formula with Jerri triumphant–kind of.
The big flaw in “Strangers With Candy” is the same one in contemporary British comedy shows like “The League of Gentlemen”–it confuses ugliness with humor. There are a few funny bits here; Colbert’s overwrought teacher is amusing in small doses, and Alban has a certain sweetness of manner that’s an oasis in a desert of crudeness. But Sedaris is unable to give Jerri any charm to compensate for her obnoxious personality, and since she’s pretty much the constant center of attention, the result is pretty dire. Hollimon comes on so strong that one cringes when he reappears from time to time, and on the other hand Dinello is a damp squib as the blissed-out doofus of an art instructor. He also directed, apparently in the laissez-faire way that gives everybody free rein–an approach that may work in sketch comedy but is fatal to long-form storytelling. Technically the movie is in all respects mediocre.
Lots of guest stars have made their way into “Strangers With Candy.” Popping up are such figures as Holm, as the Blank family doctor with an odd bedside manner; Sarah Jessica Parker, as a guidance counselor with more problems than the students she advises; Allison Janney, as a school board member with a past history with Principal Blackman; and even recent Oscar-winner Philip Seymour Hoffman, as another school board member jealous over Janney’s former assignation. But the only one who makes the right choice is Hedaya, who spends almost all his scenes comatose, thus offering those of us in the audience a signal of the state we probably ought to aim at while the movie is showing.