When movies are spun-off from television shows, audiences are wise to be wary. Too many times a great TV show will inspire a film that will either inspire indifference (X-Files: I Want to Believe) or downright hostility (both Sex and the City movies). In 2005, indie film company THINKFilm released a film version of the Comedy Central cult show, Strangers with Candy to a largely apathetic critical and financial reception. The film, written by stars Stephen Colbert, Paul Dinello and Amy Sedaris, along with Mitch Rouse who does not appear in the film, gives audiences background to the debauched story of how former-junkie turned highschool freshman ended up back in school at the age of 47. While not as good as the television show (the 90-minute length does cause it to drag a bit), the show’s sharp, crewd sense of humor is largely intact, giving the show’s fans exactly what they’d like.
Set up as a prequel, we see our lovable anti-heroine, Jerri Blank (Sedaris), released from jail and return to her childhood home, only to see that her dad’s in a coma, her mom’s dead and she’s got a wicked stepmother (Deborah Rush) and an evil half-brother (Joseph Cross). Greatly distressed at her father’s current vegetative state, Jerri is convinced by his mediocre doctor that if she returns to life the way it was before she left, her dad might wake up from his coma. So Jerri’s solution is to go back to school.
Flatpoint High is greatly expanded from the modest set of the television show to a large innercity-style school. This switch makes the scenes feel more cinematic, however, the writers don’t take enough advantage of their largely increased space. Instead the bulk of the action takes place in the classroom of science teacher, Mr. Chuck Noblet (Colbert), who is a self-loathing, closeted sadsack, whose rage and misery at life eruptes sporadically. He’s in a tortured relationship with the school’s effete, self-centered art teacher, Geoffrey (pronounced “Joff-ree”) Jellineck. The school’s principal, Onyx Blackman (Greg Hollimon) who is highly ineffective, obtuse and corrupt.
The thin plot revolves around Flatpoint High’s entry into a science fair and Blackman’s desire for the school to win first prize, so that he can keep the federal funding he received (and spent on gambling debts). Jerri wants to win the science fair because she thinks it’ll help bring her daddy back. To ensure victory, a Tony Robbins-style science teacher is brought in, Roger Beekman (Matthew Broderick), who has a nasty, ongoing rivalry with Noblet. Beekman gathers a team of the school’s best athletes and most popular students, while Noblet’s team is comprised of overachieving misfits and Jerri. As the movie progresses, Jerri learns her lesson about hard work, friendship and popularity as she tries to stay loyal to her team and while satisfying her lust for the highschool jock.
Part of the charm of the show was the unabashed embrace of politically incorrect humor. Nothing was verboten. In the film, the writers still look to that kind of humor, but have polished it up a bit (presumably for a more mainstream audience). Jerri Blank is still highly offensive and deeply noxious. Her physical appearance still causes some around her to heave. Sedaris is a sorceress when it comes to creating genuinely grotesque characters. Another hold-over from the show is the deeply twisted and inappropriate relationship between Noblet and Jellineck. It’s fraught with shame, secret, resentment and desire and offers some of the most hilarious (and uncomfortable) moments in the show.
Strangers with Candy is a great film for all, but let’s face it: it’s not an actor’s workshop. The performers all do well – Sedaris can do this kind of thing in her sleep and Colbert and Dinello slip into their characters without a misstep. Rush steals all of her scenes as the bitterly unhappy stepmother. Hollimon also is very funny. The show also has some starry cameos: Broderick’s missus, Sarah Jessica Parker, is a hoot as the highly-sexed, but completely unfeeling grief counselor; Alison Janney and Philip Seymour Hoffman are fun as a pair of beaurecrats; Kristen Johnson and Ian Holm scores laughs as well in small roles, and if you look quick enough you’ll spot Sedaris’ pal, Todd Oldham, as a faculty member.
Fans of the show will undoubtedly miss some of the characters or actors: Jerri’s Filipino friend Orlando (Orlando Pabotoy) has been replaced by Carlos Albon, who plays the Indonesian Megawait Sukarnoputri (named after Indonesia’s first female president). Dan Hedaya steps into Roberti Gari’s slippers as Guy Blank and Cross takes over for Larc Spies as Jerri’s awful half-brother. The replacements are up to the task, despite the affection devotees will have to the originals (Sedaris explained in a DVD commentary that Pabotoy and Spies aged too much in the time after the show and would not be convincing as high school teens – truth be told, though Maria Thayer who returns as the red-headed classmate, Tammi, also looks a touch long-in-the-tooth).
While not as strong as the show, the film is still a worthy entry in the Strangers with Candy mythology and doesn’t adversely affect the dark and twisted legacy of the popular TV show.
See my review of Strangers with Candy the TV show