A whimper was heard across the land when Comedy Central skein “Strangers With Candy” was canceled in 2001 after three seasons. An instant cult fave, the absurdist spoof of Afterschool Specials now is back in a prequel that reunites its original collaborators (abetted by several guest stars) and reps the first theatrical feature effort for David Letterman’s Worldwide Pants shingle. Warner Independent Pictures ponied up $3 million at Sundance for North American rights to a pic that will delight the previously converted, but, as film is just as hit-and-miss as the series was, accessing broader auds could prove a challenge.
After 32 years on the street, on the lam and in the joint as a “boozer, user and loser,” ex-prostitute/junkie Jerri Blank (Amy Sedaris) decides to start again “right where I left off” — as a high school student. Never mind that she’s almost three times the age of her classmates or that she’s not particularly welcome back in the home where daddy (Dan Hedaya) is in a coma, and “mommy” is his hostile second wife (Deborah Rush). Latter not only has a moronic jock son (Joseph Cross) but also a butcher boyfriend (David Pasquesi) pretty much living on the premises.
Faithfully reproducing TV version’s unique flavor, these and even odder circumstances are taken in stride by characters alternately venal and oblivious. “Candy’s” funhouse-mirror vision of all-American suburban life observes perverse behavior with incongruous good cheer and ersatz schmaltzy “uplift,” while the incessantly voiced racist and homophobic remarks are so pointedly ludicrous that they parody prejudice itself.
Convinced that only her becoming the “good girl” she never was will rouse daddy from his slumber, Jerri sets about being an exemplary student at Flatpoint High — despite immediate antagonism from Principal Blackman (Gregory Hollimon) and science teacher Mr. Noblet (Stephen Colbert). Latter is a born-again Creationist with wife and child who’s having an on/off gay affair with sweetly idiotic art teacher Mr. Jellineck (first-time helmer and co-scenarist Paul Dinello). Meanwhile, Blackman, in danger of losing funding, tries to up the school’s low academic rep by hiring vainglorious Roger Beekman (Matthew Broderick) as a consultant. He’s to steer them toward a Science Fair win — a move that humiliates home-team prof Noblet, who in protest assembles his own rival student team.
Jerri figures winning the Science Fair will solve her problems. But her methods are somewhat appalling to teenaged teammates Tammi (Maria Thayer) and Megawatti (Carlo Alban). Subterfuge on both sides culminates in a pretty funny climax wherein the rival sides present elaborate musical production numbers to showcase their competing science projects.
As in the original series, inspired jokes run neck-and-neck with flat ones. Still, the faux “instructive” tone (full of ostensible life lessons that couldn’t be more amoral) and rack of offbeat characterizations keeps things diverting. Sedaris’ central creation Jerri, with her grotesque overbite, worst-of-the-’70s fashion sense and blithely appalling libidinousness toward hotties of both sexes, remains a spectacular comic turn.
Hilarious Dinello and Colbert highlight the remaining cast of tube holdovers. Among newbies, Broderick has the most to do, while Allison Janney and Philip Seymour Hoffman juice their few scenes as quarrelsome school board members. Sarah Jessica Parker doesn’t add much in a cameo as a narcissistic guidance counselor.
Dinello, who’s only directed shorts before, replicates the original series’ feel with assurance, if without any extra dimension that might’ve made this bigscreen edition an improvement rather than mere continuance. Design and tech contribs are sharp on a modest budget.