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Class Dismissed 

In my day job, I am vice chancellor for Academic and Student Affairs at UNO, and in that capacity last week, I was attending a meeting in Seattle of the nation's university administrators in those two areas. Most schools have separate heads for each. At one point, we were directed to break into groups of 10, half academic officers, half student affairs chiefs. No group was to have representatives of both areas from one school, an impossible requirement in my case. As we introduced ourselves, I stated my title and commented: "I guess, I'm actually not supposed to be in this meeting with myself." I meant to be funny, of course, but my peers didn't reward me with so much as a snort. I was greeted with comparable silence when the convener asked us to summarize our institutions' relationship between academic and student affairs, and I said it was great at UNO, "But that's perhaps because I've always gotten along with myself pretty well." The point of this anecdote is to acknowledge the utter extent to which humor is a matter of taste. I may think I am a riot. But I've recently met some provosts and vice presidents who don't. And the critical matter of taste has to account for how a movie like Paul Dinello's Strangers With Candy got made. The people who bankrolled it obviously felt it was funny. But like my peers in Seattle, I haven't a clue why.

Written by Stephen Colbert, Dinello and Amy Sedaris, Strangers With Candy is a feature-length version of the Comedy Central cult series, which I confess I am delighted never to have seen. The premise pretends no basis in reality. Sedaris stars as Jerri Blank, an omnisexual 47-year-old former prostitute and drug addict who gets out of prison after doing 32 years of hard time. She returns home to find her father (Dan Hedaya) in a three-decade-long "stress coma" induced by his daughter's incarceration. Her father's doctor (Ian Holm) thinks Jerri may be able to help by returning to the local high school to get her degree. This intermingling of a clueless middle-aged woman and the usual array of high schoolers divided into the cool kids and the nerd pack is supposed to produce comedic gold. But it did so for neither me nor the audience of about a dozen with whom I watched the flick.

I will instantly concede that Strangers With Candy (the title has no meaning whatsoever) carves out some ripe targets for parody. Colbert plays Chuck Noblet, the school biology teacher who has turned to religion in hopes of stamping out his not-so-latent homosexual tendencies. He's a married father, but he's in love with Dinello's goofy art teacher Geoffrey Jellineck. In his new-found fundamentalism, Colbert preaches against sex, save for procreation, insists that the world was created in seven days and finally dispenses with his textbook to teach his "science" directly from the Bible. The film's plot, if it can be called that, ultimately comes down to a regional science fair in which the jocks and the pretty girls compete against Jerri and the dweebs. The apt point of this development is how little science is explored in high school science fairs and how frequently the prizes are awarded not for content but for glitzy packaging. And, of course, the picture hammers repeatedly at how ruthless people are when it comes to making it with the "in" crowd. The ostracized kids may embrace Jerri, but she would gleefully sell them out in a second to be accepted by the "popular" kids. These are all worthy topics, but Strangers With Candy produces laughs out of none of them.

I know the TV series had its devoted fans, who will presumably want to see this film version no matter my verdict, but I found Sedaris' performance close to excruciating. She is a rodent's visage of ticks and grimaces. She tucks her chin, bucks her teeth, crosses her eyes and lets food hang off her face whenever possible, none of which is my idea of funny. Meanwhile the script lines up one potty joke after another. Jerri comments on her own bodily functions as if she were remarking on the time and temperature. Students smear feces in one locker and urinate in another. The nerds' science project involves using human waste as a power source. Yes, some people laugh at such material, but I am not one of them.

Remarkably, as far as I am concerned, the filmmakers managed to convince a pretty impressive list of people to participate in this project. Matthew Broderick, Sarah Jessica Parker, Allison Janney and Philip Seymour Hoffman all appear in small roles. I assume they were amused by what they saw in the script. On the other hand, I think Strangers With Candy is the method by which terrorists produce suicide bombers. I know I'd probably kill myself and others to avoid watching it a second time. Humorously speaking.

click to enlarge Jerri Blank (Amy Sedaris) bounces from one institution to - another and lands in Chuck Noblet's (Steven Colbert) - biology class.
  • Jerri Blank (Amy Sedaris) bounces from one institution to another and lands in Chuck Noblet's (Steven Colbert) biology class.


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