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‘Strangers with Candy’: A little goes a long way

Comedy Central prequel is funny but doesn't quite sustain itself for a movie
/ Source: The Associated Press

“Strangers With Candy” is as joyfully twisted as the title would suggest.

A prequel to the Comedy Central TV series that was canceled in 2000 after three seasons, the film finds Amy Sedaris reprising her starring role as Jerri Blank, the fortysomething ex-con, ex-junkie, bisexual prostitute.

Fresh out of prison, Jerri returns to her childhood home and finds her father (Dan Hedaya) in a coma, so she goes back to high school to “become the good girl I never was and never had any desire to be,” in hopes that it will revive him.

Of course, Jerri didn’t fit in back when she was a freshman 32 years ago, and she’s even more of a misfit freak now. With her severe overbite, garish makeup and perpetually furrowed brow, she doesn’t exactly click with the popular clique.

Her classmates don’t seem to notice her age, only that she looks different from them — she could be a teenage nerd girl, it wouldn’t matter — and they have zero interest gleaning from her the pearls of wisdom she offers after a lifetime of hard living. Neither do her teachers, including Stephen Colbert as the science instructor who uses the Bible as a textbook, and Paul Dinello as the fun-loving art teacher with whom Colbert’s character is having a secret gay affair.

(Sedaris, Colbert and Dinello, longtime friends and Second City alumni, created the TV series together, with Dinello directing for the first time.)

What’s great about the humor is that it’s gleefully weird and politically incorrect, but everyone involved plays it with the self-righteous seriousness of an after-school special. And despite the wattage of the celebrities who appear in cameos — including Sarah Jessica Parker, Matthew Broderick, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Allison Janney — “Strangers With Candy” squeaks into theaters exuding a certain low-budget je ne sais quois.

Unlike most movies based on TV comedy, though — namely every “Saturday Night Live” skit that’s been dragged out to feature length — “Strangers With Candy” has a plot. Jerri enters the Flatpoint High School science fair to make her daddy proud, but she and her socially challenged teammates (Maria Thayer and Carlo Alban) become the pawns in a power struggle between two competing teachers. (OK, we said it had a plot. We never said it was inspired.)

Just one look at Jerri’s contorted mug is good for a laugh, and several of her one-liners are darkly hilarious. Sedaris isn’t afraid to make a hideous fool of herself for her art, which is exciting to watch. And she’s an extremely cute woman in real life, which is a testament to how convincing she can be as a comedian.

But a little of this conceit goes a long way. Jerri is ideal in small doses (as Dinello himself told The Associated Press in a recent interview, “Jerri’s a bit of an acquired taste”). And as you might expect from this kind of comedy, the jokes hit the mark about half the time.

Think of it as the film equivalent of eating a bunch of chocolate: It tastes amazing at first, but too much of it makes your belly ache.