Legendary critic Pauline Kael once described Taylor Hackford’s An Officer and a Gentleman as “crap on a motorcycle.” It might be as cheese-constipated as movies get, she argued, but at least it has the good sense to amplify the cheese to mind-obliterating excess: Junk this big and fast is bound to satisfy an audience — or at least stupefy it into submission.
The tactic is especially relatable to that dubious summer movie subgenre, the TV-show-to-movie adaptation. If most television shows are crap, most shows made into films attempt to shine up the turd with tremendous torque: over-the-top set pieces, deafening pyrotechnics, gimmicky postmodern conceits, and general crap-tasticness (Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle was even accommodating enough to throw in some actual motorcycles).
Strangers with Candy offers a perversely ingenious spin on this sad state of affairs. The late-’90s Comedy Central TV series (created by longtime collaborators Amy Sedaris, Stephen Colbert, and Paul Dinello) was in essence a parody of a bad TV show to begin with, so it’s only appropriate that the movie plays like a parody of a movie based on a bad TV show.
The story revolves around the tribulations of Jerri Blank (Sedaris), a skeezy 46-year-old former junkie, prostitute, and child runaway. After being released from prison, Jerri decides to start her life over. (“Can we chay-ange?” she asks in dramatic voice-over as she shanks a fellow inmate in slo-mo.) She returns to her childhood home, promptly enrolls in her old high school as a freshman, and tries her best to fit in — which for the clueless Jerri means showing up wearing the highest waisted jeans ever while carrying a copy of the yellow pages in lieu of a textbook.
If the show was an excuse to satirize the fertile ground of straight-faced coming-of-age melodrama, the movie is an excuse to take the satire full tilt: Virtually every scene ends with a swell of the climactic, emotional score as characters come to terms with their feelings (“I wasn’t pushing you away, I was pulling me towards myself”). And the crap-on-a-motorcycle principle culminates with the purposefully sitcomish main plotline — which hinges on Jerri and her team winning the science fair with a feces-powered battery — leading to a Carrie-style “fire” and rampage in the gym.
Strangers was a relatively obscure cult success on basic cable, and many mainstream moviegoers probably won’t know what to make of this odd little gem. Dedicated fans, however, have little to worry about. The principals reprise their roles (including Dinello as the naive, not-so-ambiguously gay art teacher Mr. Jellineck and Colbert doing a variation of his self-satisfied asshole talk-show persona as Mr. Noblet), and the nasty spirit at the core of the show hasn’t been diluted.
That nasty spirit is personified by walking, talking track mark Jerri Blank, and Sedaris gamely destroys any shred of personal vanity she might have had left after the series to portray her again. Jerri’s pathetic desperation and her obliviousness to her shortcomings make her part childlike rube, part vicious opportunist, and Sedaris revels in every poisoned aside she spits through her contorted overbite. “I was thinking about pussy,” she deadpans. “Science fair is for queers.” Despite Jerri’s rottenness, she’s more of a comic-tragic figure than someone simply to laugh at. Her gameness to try and fail over and over (without ever realizing she’s failed) makes her, if not entirely lovable, at the very least endearing. She may be a bitter pill to swallow, but Candy is still one of the sweeter surprises in a movie season inevitably stinking of a certain number two. SFBG
STRANGERS WITH CANDY
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