Most of America has a vague familiarity with Amy Sedaris. For some, she's the kooky chick who pops up on the Letterman show every once in a while to provide hilarious on-the-street reports. Others will recognize her from the sidelines of various forgettable romantic comedies starring J. Lo or Nicole Kidman.
But those unfamiliar with her most infamous creation, the sexually carnivorous fortysomething ex-con, ex-junkie, ex-prostitute Jerri Blank, might want to do a little research before buying a ticket to Strangers with Candy. To say it's an acquired taste is kind of like saying your first acid trip takes a little getting used to: For the first 30 to 60 minutes, you probably won't feel much, but after that, everything starts to make sense.
So if you haven't seen the original show, which aired briefly on Comedy Central six years ago, you'll be swimming upstream here, even though the story is basically a 90-minute recap of the entire series. You have to be on Strangers' wavelength before you can really enjoy it. The weird, awkward stretches of dead air are just setups for knockout one-liners so vulgar and tasteless, they almost can't be repeated. (Well, almost: Jerri's orgasmic cry of "I'm as moist as a snack cake down there!" is one of the best moments in both the movie and the show.)
The movie is simply the show writ large, which, as it turns out, is both a good and bad thing. Jerri's escapades have endured pretty much intact from the series. Once again, the spider-tattooed, helmet-haired, eye-twitching former junkie whore is released from prison, only to find her father (Dan Hedaya) in a coma, remarried to a suburban shrew (Deborah Rush). Vowing to give education another shot, she re-enrolls in her old high school, a place where the faculty lounge features a full bar and the born-again science teacher (Stephen Colbert) is too busy struggling with his closeted homo-desires to pay any attention to his whiny recovering-addict pupil.
Despite a science fair, an ironic tear-jerking score and a slew of star cameos, the movie is less of a parody of after-school specials than the TV series was. The lessons Jerri learned each week hilariously skewered everything teens are taught to respect: sobriety, abstinence, multiculturalism. Also, director and co-star Paul Dinello's inept visual sense worked better on the small screen, where Strangers' "how the fuck did this get on TV?" quality was only magnified by the fact that there were abrupt commercial breaks, ridiculous episode titles and a new end-credits sequence to play with every week.
Whether you enjoy the movie will depend on how much sympathy you're willing to grant the performers. The big-screen Jerri is not without her moments, and Colbert whose part seems to have grown since the show went off the air just about walks off with the film. Holding every one of his expressions in a bizarre freeze-frame and turning his emotions on and off like a faucet sobbing uncontrollably, speaking calmly, shrieking he gets Strangers better than anyone, maybe even Sedaris herself. Until the day that audiences are throwing snack cakes at the screen, dressing up in Jerri Blank-approved turquoise turtlenecks and shouting "it don't make no nevermind to me," the unconverted are best advised to stay away.
Showing at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111).
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].
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