Amy Sedaris is one of the funniest women around. But she's a comic who hasn't yet found a high-profile project that showcases her talents. The reason is one that probably won't go away: Her comedy is miles from mainstream. Any notion that Strangers With Candy might be her breakout performance disappears within the first five minutes of the film. This is no star-making turn. This is as offbeat a comedy as is likely to show in Memphis this summer. And it's hilariously odd.
Strangers With Candy is a prequel to the TV show of the same name that ran on Comedy Central for three seasons beginning in 1999. The good news for Strangers strangers is that you don't have to know anything about the characters from the show to understand the plot. However, having an understanding of the type of humor in the TV show will certainly help you get in sync with the movie. The film jumps right into a quirky-to-the-extreme style of comedy, with no acclimation period. Soon enough you'll know: You're either on board or it's not suited for you. Meanwhile, Strangers vets can feast on the gags and jokes that litter the background of many scenes.
The plot is like an after-school special on crack. Sedaris is Jerri Blank, a 46-year-old convict just released from the pen after serving a 32-year sentence. She decides to go to high school, wanting to pick up her life where she left off. Blank peppers her classmates with prison chatter and vulgar homo- and hetero-erotic come-ons that aren't appropriate outside of Chained Heat. Coming from a woman with a nervous, gremlin overbite (Jerri was "born with a complete set of teeth"), it's so strange it's funny.
That Sedaris is quite lovely in real life and Blank so genuinely ugly is just one of Strangers' many successes. Sedaris' Blank isn't like one of Tracey Ullman's creations, in which, with little effort, you can still see Ullman's real face peeking out from under the makeup. Sedaris pulls it off without betraying herself beneath the mask.
The supporting cast is excellent too, led by Stephen Colbert -- who also co-wrote the film with Sedaris and director Paul Dinello. Colbert plays a variation on the "character" he plays on his TV show The Colbert Report. In the film, he's a Bible-verse-misquoting, misogynistic, closeted-homosexual married man -- and Blank's science-hating science teacher. Greg Hollimon exults in stereotype as the African-American principal named Onyx Blackman.
Time will tell if Sedaris will ever bother to break into leading roles in red-state-minded comedy projects. It might be interesting to see her try to subvert the mainstream from within. Until then, though, it's enough to treasure her for the way she can spin gold out of weird straw.
Strangers With Candy
Opening Friday, July 14th
Studio on the Square