Sugar, no substance in TV-like 'Candy'

Special to The Times

An adaptation of the defunct Comedy Central series of the same name, "Strangers With Candy" is a film that never quite manages to justify its existence. Billed as a prequel, the movie begins with a small amount of back story and then picks up pretty much where the series did, following the travails of Jerri Blank, an ex-con, former prostitute and recovering drug addict, as she returns to high school some 30 years after dropping out in hopes of getting her life back on the right track by starting at the point where she went wrong.

Written by its lead actors, Stephen Colbert, Paul Dinello and Amy Sedaris, the film mostly relates the story of how Jerri competes in a science fair. Minus some bigger story to tell, the film seems like a lackadaisically expanded episode of the television show. The series was always essentially just a put-on version of an after-school special, those overly earnest, moral-minded TV movies from the '70s and '80s that have become touchstones of cultural kitsch. The show had a surreal charge thanks to the kooky frisson of Sedaris' hapless, sleazy and plucky Jerri -- bad clothes, no-hope hair and a laundry list of twitches and tics -- set loose amid the clean-cut denizens of a suburban school.

But having expanded their show to a feature-length movie, the creators don't seem to know what to do with themselves, and so scenes just sort of float away rather than conclude, or strain against gags that wouldn't fly at a sketch comedy workshop, such as the scene in which Colbert and Dinello have a conversation while looking just off-line from one another.

Fans of Colbert, formerly of "The Daily Show" and now at the center of "The Colbert Report," may enjoy seeing him work a variation on his confidently oblivious persona as a wrongheaded history teacher. The film is also packed with celebrity cameos, including Ian Holm, Sarah Jessica Parker, Matthew Broderick, Kristen Johnston, Justin Theroux, Allison Janney and Philip Seymour Hoffman, although their collective time on-screen is only slightly longer than it takes to arrange their names in alphabetical order.

Among the many disappointments of "Strangers With Candy," alongside how simply not funny it tends to be, is how often the movie is so willfully ugly and unpleasant to look at. Dinello, making his feature directing debut, shows little aptitude for filmmaking, as close-ups are often awkwardly too close and a general drabness reigns. Though it is conceivable these are tactics to achieving some high-minded archness, the net effect is to make it less engaging.

Much like the sailor-mouthed comedian Sarah Silverman, in many ways Sedaris' true art lies in her appearances on television talk shows. (Not for nothing was the "Candy" movie created under David Letterman's Worldwide Pants Inc. production banner.) Busting open the rigid codes and structured exchanges of the traditional promotional chat, there is a whizzing, unhinged, "Did she just say that?" glee to the way Sedaris, usually nattering away about handicrafts or rabbits, skewers the host, herself, the audience and the whole cultural apparatus at work with a cheeky aside or strained facial gesture. To try to contain such anarchic energy within something as regular as a character on a TV show or in a movie, even one as willfully out-there as "Strangers With Candy," is to deny her the full range of her comedic gifts.

Here's to hoping that Jerri Blank will finally be laid to rest and Sedaris can get back to doing what she does best -- just being Amy Sedaris.


'Strangers With Candy'

MPAA rating: R for sexual content, language and some drug material.

A ThinkFilm release. Director Paul Dinello. Writers Stephen Colbert, Dinello, Amy Sedaris. Producers Mark Roberts, Lorena David, Valerie Schaer Nathanson. Director of photography Oliver Bokelberg. Editor Michael R. Miller. Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes.

In selected theaters.

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