To gaze into Jerri Blank’s eyes is to peer into an abyss of psychosis and sin. Many years of life on the wrong side of the tracks and behind bars have left her a developmentally arrested mess with a crazed, twitching rat face: eyebrows furrowed and outsized lip clamped in bewilderment, her untamable hair a frenzy, her eyelids blinking like a bat out of hell.
Jerri (Amy Sedaris) is the anti-heroine of Strangers With Candy, a film prequel to the cult TV series, written and performed by Sedaris and the equally fabulous Stephen Colbert and Paul Dinello (who also directs). In order to resuscitate her comatose father, middle-aged ex-con Jerri decides to return to high school and try to pick up life where she left off before her whirlwind downward spiral into the gutter. But we quickly learn that this self-proclaimed boozer, user and loser, “can’t reverse 32 years of depravity in a single day.”
Centering as it does around the potentially curative effects of a high-stakes science fair — Jerri’s team, the Fig Neutrons, is led by teacher Chuck Noblet (Colbert) — the movie can barely stretch its plot out to 80 minutes, so the spoils lie in Sedaris’s frequently gut-busting performance as Jerri, truly a new high in comic acting. The laughs come from the shocking interpenetration of Jerri’s crude, hard-bitten, horrifically world-weary bluster with the more mundane but equally harsh humiliations of life as an adolescent attending suburban Flatpoint High. For example, when a new friend asks her if she’s thinking about signing up for the competition, she casually snaps, “Nah, I’m thinkin’ about pussy. Science fair’s for queers.” Many of her lines are similarly jaw-dropping, especially those inspired by her polymorphously perverse lust for her fellow students, girls and boys alike. (“Man, look at the workout he’s givin’ his chili-hole!”)
Jerri has an appallingly dirty and brutish mind, clearly out of touch with the social mores of those around her. Whether blithely telling a crush, “I want your spermies,” or effortlessly castrating and bashing a bully’s head in with a locker, Sedaris plays it straight. No matter how deplorable her behaviour, nothing fazes her menopausal born-again-teen character. The film follows suit with its filthy parade of low — but brilliantly absurd — humour from the mock-inspirational after-school special that opens the film (see Jerri being repeatedly assaulted by a prison bull-dyke — in slow motion) to the muddled, bizarre spectacle of the science fair finale. The film also includes a dog’s breakfast of cameos from Matthew Broderick as the rival science fair impresario Roger Beekman to Philip Seymour Hoffman and Allison Janney as a pair of bickering school board administrators.