Anticipation has run high for Amy Sedaris' Strangers with Candy, which premiered at Sundance in 2005 and languished in distribution purgatory for about a year thereafter; just long enough for it to become cool to say that you couldn't wait for it. One possible reason that the movie has languished for so long, though-one which nobody seems to want to say aloud-is that the movie kinda sucks.
Oh, go ahead and call me a hater, a backlasher or just an idiot who doesn't know what he's talking about. Admittedly, I've never known whether Amy and David Sedaris intend audacity, facetiousness, irony or some kind of satire when they call themselves "the Talent Family," but I found that what they ended up achieving onscreen is unfunny obnoxiousness. I've never seen the Comedy Central cult hit series to which the entirely obnoxious Strangers with Candy is a prequel-but now, having seen the movie, I don't want to.
Which must be a shame on some level; the film, lousy with long lags between jokes (not to mention lousy jokes), smacks of an amusing short-form bit that's been tortured to death through elongation, like someone gruesomely strung up on a Procrustean bed. Of course, in Strangers with Candy, gruesome is an explicit production value. Sedaris, gaudily made up to look like some kind of tweaker chipmunk, with a taut, lipstick-bracketed overbite and wide eyes drenched in mascara, plays a crack whore in her late forties who finally decides to finish high school. Is it insensitive to describe her as a "crack whore?" Yes-but that's the joke, see? The movie is unyielding and, its fans might argue, all the funnier for it. I might argue, on the other hand, that where once we had blackface we now have white-trash face, and that's probably not okay. But anyway, back to school she goes, charging headlong into the hackneyed social tribulations of which stories like this always specialize. Much politically incorrect mugging ensues.
The comedy of the grating buffoon-bastard sub-genre though it is-has a long and distinguished history. It has bestowed many sketch comedians with vast and volatile social capital, making millionaires of Jim Carrey and Adam Sandler, and martyrs of John Belushi and Chris Farley. I'm not sure what it has done for Amy Sedaris, but agreeing that Strangers with Candy establishes her as an icon of New Feminism (remember that Bust magazine cover?) feels to me like agreeing to not ever to take women seriously, let alone as funny.
Here's what's hanging me up: Strangers apes the anti-PC crudity of lowbrow farce but is a star vehicle for a woman who has a regular column in the Believer Magazine. "What range!" I am apparently meant to think. "What disingenuousness," is what I actually do think. It's not that the movie is in bad taste. It's that its permissive reception in certain hipster and wannabe hipster sects, a knee-jerk endorsement of obvious crap, is in worse taste.
Co-written by Sedaris with her co-stars Stephen Colbert and Paul Dinello, and directed by Dinello, Strangers has an unsettling tone. It comes off like street wisdom imagined by people who've spent more time sheltered in their living rooms watching after-school specials (or Comedy Central parodies thereof) than they have in actual streets, but who are at least aware of this fact about themselves and are therefore the living embodiments of squandered intelligence.
The movie does imply one gritty truth, one not at all easy to face, which is that Colbert as a performer likely has more limits than gifts, and accordingly his star may already be fading. Probably no amount of Colbert's admittedly show-stealing business as a closeted, self-involved, born-again science teacher can undo the suspicion that future generations may only regard him as someone who is not to be confused with Bob Saget.
Meanwhile, the supporting cast is a parade of A-listers, including Matthew Broderick, Sarah Jessica Parker, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Allison Janney and-for crying out loud-Ian Holm. Their performances seem stiff and conspicuous, suggesting desperation for a certain kind of credibility more than they do investment in character (such as it is) or the simple pleasure of play-acting. In their dilemma, the movie's core loyalist audience surely must recognize its own.
In other words, Strangers with Candy is a dumb, crass comedy for people who prefer to think of themselves as being above the appreciation of dumb, crass comedies but can't bear to be seen as Philistines. I know I have friends among these folks, and I know how I must sound to them. I'm not getting all hysterical here, or accusing anybody of sanctioning some pronouncement that anti-intellectualism is the new intellectualism. All I'm saying is that it's okay if you think this movie sucks-and that you might actually feel better if you just admit it.