29 July 2022

52 for '22: Strangers with Candy

MovieStrangers with Candy (2005)
Method: Netflix DVD

So 46-year old Jerri Blank is definitely unapologetically
 lusting over High Schooler Chris Pratt, right?

Why Did I watch this?

I was a big fan of the Comedy Central show back when it was on the air and part of me always knew there was a movie, but I had never gotten into it. For some reason it just didn't seem like it was as big of a deal as the TV show. It had been on my DVD queue since January 11th, 2010, so it's one of those originals that I've been trying to watch for ten years. It was just time, easy 90 minute movie.

What Did I know ahead of time?

Like I said, I watched the show pretty thoroughly twenty years ago, so I knew Amy Sedaris and Jerri Blank pretty well. I knew Colbert was big in this, although I didn't realize that he really wasn't involved in writing the show, but did contribute to the movie. I did not remember...quite a bit apparently, but we'll get to that. Suffice it to say, this was not unwholly strange and jarring to me, I pretty much knew what I was getting into.

How Was It?

This felt like a clinic in comedy writing. Every joke is masterfully written and executed, with character, irony, set-up, and pay-off. It threads this needle of extreme goofiness but never lets on that it's a comedy or grins at the audience. Everything is played extremely straight, even the most insane conversations. And it's shot very matter of factly, which seems jarring for the time it was made. It's hard to believe this is a contemporary of The 40 Year Old Virgin (2005), Clerks II (2006), or Dodgeball (2004). All those movies are loud, obnoxious fart parades for man-children, but Strangers with Candy doesn't really do that.

It's not bright or fast-paced or crisply edited. It truly stands as its own thing, a little dim, a little stayed, and hardly playing anything for laughs or pop culture references. It's weird that it exists at all. Strangers with Candy was a launching point for many of the stars here, most notably Colbert, who did this in between The Dana Carvey Show and The Colbert Report (sure, the Daily Show was in there, too). I kept being struck by the fact that this was a Worldwide Pants production with David Letterman as an executive producer. His time at Comedy Central, owned by Viacom also made me think more and more how his status as Late Show replacement was maybe more telegraphed than we'd think.

The show was fairly popular at the time, but not an extreme cultural force. It existed in this weird little hole of comedy people doing exceptional work, most notably creator and writer Sedaris who throws herself into an amazingly unflattering role with reckless abandon. I found it hard to believe that this movie actually existed for a long time. Like, why did this not that popular show get a movie five years after it ended? That no one ever saw or talked about? Like, is this really a movie?

It is and it runs very contrary to many of its contemporaries. It's female focused...but don't think this is a feminist film. In a sense it's feminist because it's letting women be really really weird and insane. It borders on surreal but doesn't quite take the plunge like a Zucker or Wayans film. It's subtle but at the same time completely unsubtle. There are some choice homophobic f-word slurs that don't age well at all. And the ending which involves a King Kong (2005)-level tribal dance by an actor in...Indonesian-face make-up despite claiming to be Indonesian is an entirely new level of cringe. It doesn't get to laugh at their buffoonery like a "Diwali" Christmas episode of The Office does. Nah, it's straight up rough.

For some reason I just kept wondering why I never saw this on TV. Why didn't Comedy Central play it? Is it because some of its humour was dated immediately upon release? The way director / creator / star Paul Dinello shoots it as if it really is an after-school special (but without any of the winking irony you'd see a lesser hack do these days), so it's cold and dim? Or just that it's whole attitude wasn't much like the polished Apatow humor of the day. I don't know, but it's definitely an underrated downtrodden gem.

Also Chris Pratt is in this. It makes you remember when Chris Pratt was a likable comedy star, although he plays a beefcake here. It's weird. Watch him interview with Colbert! Allison Janey, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Matthew Broderick, and Sarah Jessica Parker show up. It's weird. Like, a lot of A Listers wanted to be in this movie. This should have been a big success. Maybe folks couldn't get passed this main character?

We should talk more about Sedaris. She went to BoJack Horseman, Kimmie Schmidt, and The Mandalorian. But this is and will always be her magnum opus. It's totally bonkers and rests on her shoulders with a character who is at once utterly pathetic and actually kind of confident and cunning. It's a narrow needle to thread, but she pulls it off spectacularly.

I've given this a lot of praise, and it was pretty fun, but I think there is also a reason why this has been shelved for so long. It's a bit off-putting, the plot is pretty mid-2000s (tho it righteously doesn't care), and I'll admit that after twenty years I remembered surprisingly very little about the actual characters in this show. It kind of launches you right into things expecting you to remember. No one does. Then again, it was clearly an uncompromising film made for die hard fans of the show. So if you're one of those, this is going to be great.

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