Strangers with Candy

Having been only dimly aware of the Comedy Central series “Strangers with Candy” during its 1999-2001 run, I approach the feature film — a prequel to the series, actually — as someone who has appreciated the individual talents of Amy Sedaris, Stephen Colbert and Paul Dinello but who has no particular attachment to this kooky little franchise.

But even with that detachment, I’m a little disappointed in the film, which begins brilliantly but which, around the half-way point, becomes bogged down in its plot and can barely muster the energy to be funny thereafter. Even the Sundance Film Festival audience, composed primarily of hardcore fans, seemed to wane in its appreciated after 45 minutes or so (though that could also be attributed to the film having started at well past midnight).

But let us consider the character of Jerri Blank. She is a 47-year-old ex-con former junkie whore with an unsettling overbite, a singularly unattractive creature, both in looks and personality. (“Just be yourself,” she is told. “And if things don’t work out, we’ll know where we went wrong.”) Amy Sedaris plays her with squirrelly, cross-eyed zeal, the sort of odd manifestation that can only come from a mind as hyperactively twisted as Sedaris’. The moments are numerous when simply looking at Jerri is enough to make you laugh.

In the film, she has just been released from a lengthy prison sentence to find her decrepit father in a coma and her new stepmother (Deborah Rush), whom she has not met until now, running the house. Thinking that going back to where she was before prison will help her father return to his original state, too, Jerri re-enrolls in high school, a daft, vaguely bisexual 47-year-old in a sea of perplexed teenagers.

Her uptight science teacher, Chuck Noblet (Stephen Colbert), is a gay, married born-again Christian, if you can imagine, carrying on an affair with hippie art teacher Geoffrey Jellineck (Paul Dinello). But the affair is ill-fated. Chuck lets him down gently, saying, “I need more out of this relationship than I’m willing to put in — and I think I deserve better than that, don’t you?” Later, he says, “I wasn’t pushing you away; I was pulling me toward myself.”

That kind of absurdist, whacked-out verbal comedy permeates the film, inspiring fits of giggles that are often accompanied by a disbelieving shake of the head. Characters have names like Tammi Littlenut, Les Tuckles and Iris Puffybush, and the fact that Jerri is far older than her classmates barely elicits notice by the other students. The screenplay, by Sedaris, Colbert and Dinello, emphasizes wordplay and clever phrasing, making it a movie you have to listen to as much as look at.

And then there is, unfortunately, the plot. Jerri and her new friends become involved in the inter-school science fair, and all the machinations attendant to that — intra-school politics, teams stealing ideas, the principal bringing in a shill science teacher (played by Matthew Broderick), and so forth — eventually burden the film so heavily it can barely stand. In the first half, they’re just having fun. Then they realize they’ve introduced this plot, and dammit, now they actually have to see it through. From that point on, what little comedy is able to escape from the black hole of the too-complex storyline is so weakened by the struggle as to be negligible. Comedies are often criticized for being light on story, but here’s one that should have been lighter.

Or maybe it is that a little of Jerri goes a long way. She is, after all, not a believable (or even especially likable) character; she exists only to be funny. Maybe she should only be prescribed in 30-minute doses. Certainly the first 30 minutes of this film are among the most hilarious first 30 minutes of any film. Pity it couldn’t last.

B- (1 hr., 37 min.; R, some profanity, brief sexuality, vulgar dialogue.)