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School Daze

Slackjawed sketch comedy adaptation struggles on the big screen

Of the Sedarises, it's apparent that Gretchen is, or at least was, the funniest, if her brother David's family memoirs are any indication, and if you don't count their mother, that grande dame of impatient dish, cigarette punctuation, restless disgust, and curse-at-the-kids nonchalance. David, today, is funny too, enough to sell books like cans of soda. Amy, by the evidence on the public table, is a second-string Sedaris—possessed of a rosy reputation among comics, she has only unrecognizable bit roles, a stint at Second City, and the short-lived Comedy Central series Strangers With Candy to commend her. Now that SWC is a full-on movie, one might well wonder how Amy plays in meetings (fabulously, I'd guess), and how it was that a failed and peculiar cable sitcom was seen fit to reconstitute as a film, which is a far less forgiving form in terms of shtick, repetitive jokes, slack-jawed plotting, and caricature.

Sedaris certainly called in her chits—first shown at Sundance last year, Strangers With Candy is top-heavy with guest stars (Matthew Broderick, Sarah Jessica Parker, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Allison Janney) and co-producers (Stephen Colbert, David Letterman). Whatever: The movie, for those unfamiliar with the show, represents a particular varietal of arrhythmic, conscientiously anti-witty comedy. Andy Kaufman is the style's St. Joan, occupying the borderland between blackout yuks and discomfiting performance art. Often enough, overripe unfunniness is the joke.

As the film's hub, Sedaris, under a clownish ton of white-trash makeup and a never shampooed wig, is Jerri, an ex-junkie-hooker-hood fresh from decades in prison. A high school dropout, she returns to her alma mater in the hopes of making her comatose dad (an inexcusably wasted Dan Hedaya) proud, or something, but the real loin of the matter is Sedaris's conception of her character. Set in Lowdown Sketch World, Strangers is abjectly ludicrous, but even here Jerri is an alien creation, prone to gargoylish mugging and dim-witted non sequiturs. No one in the film notices Jerri's age, or her psychotic behavior; most of the cast (except, perhaps, for the implacable Ian Holm as a charlatan shrink) have no idea how to react to Sedaris. (Margaret Dumont–style awkwardness is the rule, especially for the teenagers.)

She's a committed spectacle, but hardly an incisive comedienne. When the all-sober Jerri takes a joint hit, everyone just stands back and watches her smash lamps and furniture in what's supposed to be a flashback seizure. Comic turned first-time director Paul Dinello has the timing of a tar-pit victim; too often the dead air surrounding a gag is merely filled with Sedaris in close-up, screwing up her eyes and letting her fake buck teeth hang out of her mouth.

Mannered and odd, Strangers With Candy—show or movie, because there is little functional difference between them—is a daring shot in the dark, but it misses the barn. (And I do mean dark: Another comedy handicap is Oliver Bokelberg's shadowy cinematography, giving many scenes the unbefitting gloom of a cheap thriller.) Predictably, the peripheral ideas are funniest: The school itself is a dukedom of misappropriated funds, with a faculty sauna and lounge—that is, a working bar. Colbert's irate science prof is a testy neo-Christian who teaches anti-Galileo doctrine; Justin Theroux's window of opportunity as a driving instructor who throws himself across his students' windshields is far too small. Greg Hollimon, as Principal Onyx Blackman—the film's kiss-my-ass middle school racism and homophobia aren't meant as "real," but an ironic exploitation thereof—is riotously gruff and blithely corrupt, even when he greets his underlings with a booming "Hi di ho!"

A few tense moments surrounding a ringing doorbell are, amid the shrugs, distended pauses, and goofy faces, a relative oasis of lurking humor. (Hoffman, on the other hand, acts as if he'd dropped by for lunch, and got shanghaied.) Strangers With Candy regularly lampoons junkie-reparation melodramas and after-school specials, but with so little focus it's never clear what the film, or even Sedaris's vaudeville buffoon incarnation, is supposed to be parodying. That may be its fascination for some—it's a satire without a baseline, free-floating in its own self-indulgent ether. It's always hard to tell which misfired films may gain a video/cable slacker cult with the roll of years and the application of recreational dope, but something tells me that, sometime in the bored future, a bang of that weed may convert Sedaris's lark into a revelation.

 
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