Comedy Central's Strangers With Candy twisted the conventions of the afterschool special by making its plucky high-school freshman protagonist a gargoyle-like 47-year-old ex-junkie, ex-con, and former prostitute; it also ensured that by the end of each episode, she'd either learned nothing, or gotten the wrong message. In that respect, the show benefited tremendously from the self-contained, limited scope of the half-hour sitcom. Each episode coalesced into a warped amorality tale in which bad behavior is rewarded and good intentions go comically awry.
Now Amy Sedaris, Paul Dinello, and Stephen Colbert's cult sensation has made it to the big screen with a little help from David Letterman's Worldwide Pants production company and a bevy of movie stars filling out bit parts. Strangers With Candy was an atypical sitcom, but like so many television adaptations, its big-screen spin-off is just like the television show, only not as good. In this "prequel," Sedaris reprises her role as a wide-hipped, self-professed "boozer, user, and two-time loser" who re-enrolls in high school after decades away in the hope that her academic success will rouse her disappointed father (Dan Hedaya) out of a lengthy coma.
Co-writers Colbert and Dinello reprise their roles as deeply closeted teachers who find utterly dysfunctional ways to channel their rage and frustration. Like so many of the show's characters, they're defined largely by the lies they tell themselves and others in order to maintain the appearance of order and stability. On television, Strangers With Candy sneered at the peppy clichés of afterschool specials, but the narrative demands of feature films can't be laughed off so easily, and none of the film's skimpy plot threads offer much of a payoff. Ninety-seven minutes is an awfully long time to wait for Sedaris to not learn any valuable life lessons. Strangers With Candy lives and dies on the strength of individual gags, most of which are clever, but none of which quite make up for the absence of a strong narrative drive. Sometimes being funny isn't enough.