Anticipation has run high for Amy Sedaris’ Strangers with Candy movie, 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 you can’t wait for it. One possible reason for the languishing that nobody seems to want to say aloud, though, 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 or facetiousness or irony or some kind of satire when they call themselves “The Talent Family,” but I’ve found that what they achieve is unfunny obnoxiousness. And yes, it’s true that I’ve never once seen the Comedy Central cult hit series to which the mostly unfunny and 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 between-joke lags (not to mention lousy jokes), smacks of an at-least-amusing short-form bit that’s been tortured to death through elongation, as if gruesomely strung out on a Procrustean bed. Of course, in Strangers with Candy, gruesomely strung out 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 decides finally to finish high school. Is it insensitive to describe her as a crack whore? Yes; that’s the joke, see? The movie is unyielding, and, its fans might argue, all the funnier for it. I might argue that where once we had blackface, now it’s white-trash face, and that’s probably not OK. But anyway, back to school she goes, charging headlong into the hackneyed social tribulations in 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 a new-feminist icon (remember that Bust magazine cover?) feels to me like agreeing not ever to take women seriously. Or funnily.
Here’s what’s hanging me up: Strangers apes the anti-P.C. crudity of lowbrow farce, but it is a star vehicle for a woman who has a regular column in The Believer. “What range!” I am apparently meant to think; “What disingenuousness,” I actually do think. It’s not that the movie’s in bad taste. It’s that its permissive reception in certain hipster and wannabe hipster sects—a knee-jerk endorsement of obviously weak material—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 as imagined by people who’ve spent more time sheltered in their living rooms watching After-School Specials or Comedy Central parodies thereof than in actual streets, but who at least know this about themselves and therefore are the living embodiments of squandered intelligence.
The movie does imply one gritty truth, 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 any investment in character (such as it is) or even in the simple pleasure of playacting. 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 above dumb, crass comedies–but can’t bear to be seen as any sort of 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-intellectual is the new intellectual. All I’m saying is that it’s OK if you think this movie sucks. And that you might actually feel better if you just admit it.