Jerri Blank is everyone’s favorite user, boozer, and loser. Okay, maybe not everyone’s, but for those rabid followers of the cancelled cult television show “Strangers With Candy,” Jerri, as portrayed by the brilliant Amy Sedaris, was like a breath of fresh comedic air, albeit one with a toxic aftertaste. Lasting only three seasons, from 1999 to 2001, the loved-hated Comedy Central show and its 47-year-old ex-con junkie w***e were undeniable originals in a sea of mediocrity. Personally, I was hardly religious about the show (I rarely am), but was always amused, and a bit creeped out, when I caught it. Now here we are, four years later, faced with the return of Jerri Blank in her own feature film, whether we asked for it or not. Should we care? Is Jerri’s a welcome and necessary return to the limelight? Well, your feelings on the original series will obviously play a major factor in your reception of the film version, which, for its part, is faithful to its deranged spirit. Diehards will rejoice, while haters will probably not be converted. For those like me, curious channel surfers with a decidedly oddball sensibility, the “Strangers With Candy” film is a hit-or-miss curiosity that nonetheless feels welcome in the era of “Fat Albert”.
The cast and writers (Sedaris, Stephen Colbert, and Paul Dinello) of the original series were wisely reunited for this film adaptation, actually a prequel, which takes us back to when Jerri, a self-professed “junkie jack-in-the-box”, was first released from prison. During a hilarious opening segment, Jerri’s experiences in the big bird cage play like a Pam-Grier-women-prison-film highlight reel. Following her release, Jerri decides to turn her life around and finally go home after a 32-year descent into depravity. Yet upon arriving at her childhood home, Jerri is shocked to discover that her mother is long dead and her father, remarried to an uber-bitch, lies helpless in a coma. (As the saying goes, ex-con junkie w****s can truly never go home.) Devastated, Jerri does what anyone would do in such a situation: she goes back to high school in an effort to “pick up from where she left off” and impress her father into waking from his condition. Jerri soon discovers that high school isn’t all that different from prison and that to succeed in things like the school science fair, it’s best to recruit a bad-a*s posse, or in this case, lots of Koreans and Indians.
As expected, “Strangers With Candy” is chock-full of offensive stereotypes and puerile in-jokes. From the gambling-addicted, appropriately named Principal Blackman (Gregory Hollimon) to the flamboyantly gay art teacher Mr. Jellineck (co-screenwriter and first-time helmer Paul Dinello), the film plays like an ABC Afterschool Special on crack. Delicious cameos by the likes of Matthew Broderick as the P.T. Barnum of regional science fairs and his wife Sarah Jessica Parker as a h***y grief counselor with a tip jar only add to the film’s generous lunacy. Though the film suffers the same lame fate of many one-joke, skit-worthy “high” concepts, “Strangers With Candy” is worth seeing if but for two reasons alone: Amy Sedaris and Stephen Colbert. The latter simply kills as Mr. Noblet, a bisexual science teacher who teaches from the Bible, having recently found God. The “Daily Show” veteran has never been funnier than he is here, and that’s saying a lot. But as good as Colbert is, he takes a back seat to Sedaris as she of the distinctive overbite and disturbingly hyperactive libido. As Jerri, Sedaris is so goofy and twisted that you easily forget what a cutie she is in real life. Though it takes obvious, Depp-level talent to so fully create such characters, I only wish Sedaris and company would take themselves, and their audience, slightly more seriously and deliver the comic gold they were born to deliver.