Th!nkFilm // 2005 // 91 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge David Johnson // November 20th, 2006
Going to high school for the first time is always scary...especially the second time around.
The Comedy Central series that built a cult following, then unceremoniously blinked out of existence finds rebirth in a feature film. Are the chronicles of the 47-year-old "boozer, user, and loser" fertile ground for a 90-minute reworking or is this a creative work better left to the small screen?
The film version creates the "Jerri Blank" origin story (which the series pretty much summed up in voiceover and rudimentary animation), with a little bit more plot thrown in to drive the story. Here's the deal: When she was 15, Jerri (Amy Sedaris) dropped out of school, ran away from home, got into drugs, prostitution, and assorted debauchery, did a stint in prison, and, upon returning home, discovered her father in a self-imposed coma. The doctor (Ian Holm) recommend that Jerri reinvigorate her father by trying to return him to the last period of happiness before he checked out, so she decides to go back to high school as a 47-year-old freshman.
I don't get it either. The overly-convoluted storyline is merely a set-up to get Jerri into school, and doesn't make much sense, but since this movie -- and the insane universe it's set in -- is so surreal, I'll let it slide.
So now Jerri is faced with a school full of shallow people who instantly take a disliking to her: a megalomaniacal principal (Greg Hollimon), a psychotic science teacher (Stephen Colbert, The Colbert Report), an emotionally unstable art teacher (Paul Dinello, who also directed), and the unholy amounts of peer pressure, moral dilemmas, and human fecal matter in a locker that are common to high school.
I've got a dilemma. I was (and am) a huge fan of Strangers with Candy when it aired on Comedy Central. While I recognize the show wasn't to everyone's tastes, I though its taboo-crushing, boundary-pushing, gross-out humor was spot on and rare was the episode that didn't have me laughing out loud. The movie, however, was a disappointment.
So here's the problem: I know I didn't like the film very much, despite a few inspired moments, but maybe a) I was essentially spoiled by the show, went in expecting the same kind of joke-per-minute ratio, and had way-too-big expectations, while people who have never savored the hilarity of the show, its characters, and its premise will be bowled over by the uniqueness of the comedy while I'm being an overly nitpicking fanboy or b) the film is maybe worse than I think and my allegiance to the material has given me a weak will to really lay into it. Hmmmm.
Well, regardless, I'm sticking by my original reaction: Strangers with Candy as a movie simply doesn't live up to the deft comedy of Strangers with Candy the television series. Oh, and if you despised the show, you'll likely despise the film.
My main gripe with the flick is the same as any other half-baked comedy: it's just not funny enough. It starts fairly promising, with shots of Jerri in prison (including a hard-to-watch shower fight), a very funny meeting between Principal Blackman and the members of the school board (Allison Janney from The West Wing and Phillip Seymour Hoffman), and our first exposure to Chuck Noblet and Geoffrey Jellineck, which translates into a funny scenes. Then the plot kicks in.
The story revolves around the science fair, which Principal Blackman needs to win to secure school board funding. To ensure a win he brings in a ringer (Matthew Broderick), a science teacher renowned for winning science fairs, and gives him all the advanced students, Noblet gets Jerri, Tammy (Maria Thayer, returning from the show), and Megawatti (Carlo Alban, replacing the character of Orlando). What unfolds is some derivative plot twists that involve the cool kids shunning the nerds, then befriending Jerri to get the science project plans, Jerri shunning her friends, and everyone pulling it together at the last minute in one of the weirdest finales I've ever seen in a film. The thing is, somewhere along the line, the comedy melts away and the script focuses more on the pseudo-teen drama from the plot. That's right, a Strangers with Candy plays it straight! Well, not totally straight, but there's a noticeable dearth of hearty laughs in the film's saggy middle act. And not even the Noblet-Jellineck stuff is enough to resuscitate the flagging momentum.
One more thing: Jerri Blank herself becomes a burden. Amy Sedaris is great and all, but this character is best used in small doses. Blank dominates the runtime and this became quite taxing after a while. I think she is truly a character best suited to 22-minute increments and the script demanded too much of her routine.
All that being said, there are still some funny moments, the writing occasionally shines and the overall bizarreness of the proceedings separate from many other high school-flavored comedies.
The film gets a nice-looking 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer (and the look is jarring at first compared the show's homegrown visuals) and 5.1 Dolby Digital mix. Extras include a commentary with Sedaris, Colbert, and Dinello, the "Atomic Car" music video, and some unfunny deleted scenes.
I think the fans may be disappointed, but Strangers noobs might dig the out-of-bounds humor. Still, for them, I'd recommend the series for a true taste of what these guys are capable of.
Your hall pass is revoked.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 91 Minutes
Release Year: 2005
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Cast Commentary
* "Atomic Car" Music Video
* Deleted Scenes