If the most obvious factor determining the quality of a comedy is simply, 'Is it funny?â?� then this most subjective of genres is the hardest for a critic to judge. I could lay countless superlatives on Paul Dinello's Strangers With Candy ' I could tell you it's the funniest movie since The 40-Year-Old Virgin, that co-star/co-writer Stephen Colbert is a comedic genius, or that the film's physical comedy and verbal one-liners are uproarious. But if your cup of tea spills more toward Saturday Night Live than the defunct cult TV series on which Strangers With Candy is based, you probably won't be as amused.
This is why great comedies have to be more than just the sum of their jokes: They should be formally imaginative and narratively bold as well. When the criterion of excellence is extended beyond the knee-jerk laugh factor, stylistic ingenuity becomes the work's selling point as art. Like the classic comedies of Chaplin, Hawks and Woody Allen, Strangers With Candy is more than just a good subjective comedy ' it's a great objective film.
Since the film's narrative basically predates that of the TV series, which lasted two seasons on Comedy Central, you don't have to have ever seen the show to understand the material (unlike, say, Michael Mann's turgid and underdeveloped mess of an adaptation, Miami Vice). Strangers With Candy finds 'user, boozer and loserâ?� Jerri Blank (a wonderfully white trash-ified Amy Sedaris) being released from a prison sentence and returning to her childhood home. She finds her father (Dan Hedaya) in a coma in an upstairs bedroom and her mother living with a short-tempered new man.
Considered a long-term vegetable by the family's deadpan Dr. Putney (Ian Holm), Dad shows a surprising stirring of movement upon Jerri's arrival. It's Putney's crackpot hypothesis that Jerri must re-live her life cleanly and morally ' to rectify the years of abuse and depravity ' starting at high school, in an effort to cure her comatose father.
Like any new student, Jerri is ostracized and made an outcast from the school's popular, exclusive cliques. But unlike the weak, meek science geeks she befriends (comically named Megawatti Sacarnaput and Tammi Littlenut), the prison-bred Jerri can defend herself ' and then some ' against her attackers.
Dinello has said that he considered Fellini's Nights of Cabiria and John Cassavetes' A Woman Under the Influence when directing Sedaris as Jerri. Like the female leads in those films, Sedaris' awkward and wide-eyed facial contortions speak louder than her words. She imbues her role with an astonishing silent-film sensibility that Dinello fosters in his direction.
Jerri's journey may be the movie's overriding focus, but its funniest moments come courtesy of Colbert and Dinello as bisexual faculty members on the verge of a breakup. Colbert's Chuck Noblet, a recurring character on the TV series, now seems like a thinly guised variation on his parodic conservative pundit on The Colbert Report: Note the self-empowered buffoonery, the curious sexual orientation, the religious symbols scattered throughout the classroom and the shunning of science (even though he's a science teacher!).
Noblet also has to deal with the school's annual science fair, where his intrepid group of students ' including Jerri ' will compete against those of rival professor Roger Beekman (Matthew Broderick), a Bob Fosse'like showman of science whose grandiose projects are intellectually empty but dazzling enough to win the judges over every year.
But it's in the disintegrating relationship between Noblet and Dinello's Geoffrey Jellineck (another TV show regular) that the filmmakers indulge their self-reflexive tendencies the most, hilariously lampooning staid melodramatic conventions via tear-stained gazes and Marcelo Zarvos' soap-opera-level score.
Dinello, who co-wrote the script along with Colbert and Sedaris, is, amazingly, a first-time feature film director. You can't tell it from his command of the widescreen canvas: The film's compositions are dense and layered. Subtle jokes are written on walls, blackboards and lockers, and are otherwise tucked away in the corners of the frame, away from the central action and requiring multiple viewings to catch them all.
Between the sex-obsessed nature of Sedaris' degenerate junkie, the emotionally unstable grandiloquence of Colbert's teacher and the film's many self-conscious reminders that you're watching a movie, Strangers With Candy can be summarized as a strange brew of John Waters, the aforementioned Colbert Report and Wayne's World (one of the best, most cinematically intelligent and lively comedies of the early '90s, yet ironically one that sprang from one of the decade's laziest sketch-comedy shows). Like the mixing of disparate chemicals in a school science project, it's a potentially volatile combination, but one that Dinello pulls off with ease.
(Opens Friday, Aug. 4, at Enzian Theater, 407-629-0054)