“Can we change?” That’s the question 46-year-old high school freshman Jerri Blank (Amy Sedaris) poses at the outset of the film Strangers with Candy. Using regurgitated material from the late-‘90s Comedy Central TV series while mostly abandoning its signature After-School Special premise, this “prequel” makes the answer to her question clear: No. And Yes.
First, Jerri’s story: A teenage runaway, she was “a user, a boozer, and a loser.” Not to mention a prostitute, felon, and insatiable bisexual. The film begins with her release from prison and return home. Here she finds her mother dead, her father (Dan Heyada) in a coma, and a waspy stepmother (Deborah Rush) and snarky half-brother (Joseph Cross) running things. When her father winces at the sound of Jerri’s voice, she decides to rouse him permanently by winning the Science Fair. If this plot sounds ridiculous, the good news is that it’s soon overtaken by a swirl of random-seeming cameos (Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Sarah Jessica Parker, Ian Holm, to name a few) and increasingly uncomfortable, mostly unfunny fish-out-of-water moments.
Jerri’s part of a Science Fair team assembled by science teacher Mr. Noblet (Stephen Colbert). They’re competing against a stellar team of Asian students, cheerleaders, and athletes hand-picked by Dr. Roger Beekman (Matthew Broderick). His flamboyance—all jazz hands and direct eye contact—encapsulates that awestruck theatrical quality of any high school Science Fair, but, as entertaining as it is to see Ferris Bueller returned to high school hallways, this film musters none of the dark irony of Election.
Still, it does parody ‘80s tv shows (as the series did), particularly by casting Carlo Alban as Jerri’s ethnically ambiguous friend Megawatti. Alban’s history as a regular on Sesame Street makes him seem “innocent,” an apt foil to Jerri’s world-weary amorality. Unfortunately, the film abandons that focus for a chest-puffing match between Noblet and Beekman, with art instructor Mr. Jellineck (director Paul Dinello) as Noblet’s jealous lover. Where a gay love triangle initially seems “progressive,” it soon turns tiresome, more exploitative than politically correct.
Even more tiresome is Jerri, who repeatedly acts like a feral white trash child, a sort of spiteful id. Fighting her hedonistic urges in her new, temptation-filled environment becomes Jerri’s chief struggle. But the film doesn’t really address her motivations, concerned instead with broad jokes at Jerri’s expense. When Jerri invites red-headed and virginal Tammi (Maria Thayer) over to work on the project, at first she seems eager to bond with her new best friend, then proceeds to feel her up as a punch line. Tammi remains understanding, though, another foil to Jerri: given her past, the troublemaker just can’t help herself.
Jerri is less generous, or maybe just a less developed character, which is unfortunate, given that Sedaris’ performance sets her up to be so fun to watch, you really wish she had some better material, and not an just an amalgam of scenes pulled straight from the series. For example, when Megawatti crushes on her, she dismisses him, barely acknowledging his existence next to the affluent whiteness of jock Brason (Chris Pratt). Jerri wants the cool white guy, not the dark-skinned dork.
Repeatedly inappropriate (“I have a note to leave school early to get my uterus scraped”), she’s unaffected by her peers’ corrections. Sadly, even as the film pokes fun at stereotypes with puns and such (see: Principal Blackman or Coach Muffy Divers), it seems unsure of its point. It seems to me that Jerri Blank herself might be a kind of point, as she’s such an equal opportunity bigot, a challenge to anyone practicing political correctness.
The TV series routinely exposed hypocrisies and stereotypes involving race, religion, class, and sexuality in ways gleefully offensive and clever (“Where’s the spick with my chink food?”). The movie, however, skirts such dangerous material, reaching instead in to the Bible-thumper stock bin: where, in the series, Noblet has often misinformed his students in his American History class, here, he’s a Science teacher who instructs from the Holy Bible. Sure, we get the joke, but it lacks the moxie of a history lecture explaining how the Native Americans clearly had it coming.
The sloppy humor is especially surprising given the source. Stephen Colbert—notorious pundit satirist and courageous Bush-roaster—shares writing credit with Dinello and Sedaris, but the film doesn’t make any political argument. This even though Jerri, with her addictions and criminal past, is a liberal’s dream case-in-point, epitomizing a disenfranchised America. But here she’s made a crude spectacle rather than any sort of indictment. Jerri’s initial question, “Can we change?” doesn’t lead to intelligent or even daring amusements. Rather, we’re left with Jerri scratching her crotch at the dinner table and calling her brother a “blood fart.”
Strangers with Candy - Theatrical Trailer