STRANGERS WITH CANDY by Amy Sedaris, Paul Dinello and Stephen Colbert, directed by Dinello, with Sedaris, Dinello, Colbert, Allison Janney and Philip Seymour Hoffman. 97 minutes. A ThinkFilm release. Opens Friday (July 21). For venues and times, see Movies, page 84. Rating: NN
"Leave me a message and I won't call you back!"
Amy Sedaris's outgoing message perfectly captures her subversive wit. There's the nod to politeness, followed by a swift little kick to the shins.
"Did you just call?" she asks three minutes later when I try again, recovering from my laughter. "Sorry, I was just walking through the door."
That harried, slightly Southern twang is more suited to her Sex And The City character (she played Carrie's fast-talking book editor) than to Jerri Blank, the 47-year-old ex-con, junky prostitute who returns to high school in Strangers With Candy, the film based on the cult Comedy Central series.
After some prodding, Sedaris rolls out Jerri's distinctive drawn-out voice ("How's that, honey?"), sounding like a lewd and overly lubricated phone sex operator.
"If I get recognized at all on the street, it's from Sex And The City or the Letterman appearances," she says, on the phone from her West Village apartment. "That's why I like playing characters who look nothing like me."
Jerri, with her padded fatsuit, penchant for macrame vests and distinctive haircut - half lady golfer, half Hermey the Dentist from Rudolf The Red-Nosed Reindeer - is a nightmare that even Diane Arbus couldn't have dreamed up. Watching her on TV is one thing; seeing her on the big screen is potentially overwhelming.
"We didn't go too severe with the circles around the eyes for that reason," admits Sedaris, "and I toned down on the other makeup." She sighs. "The things we movie stars have to do."
Unlike Jerri, who tries so hard to fit in at Flatpoint High - the series and film on one level are a satire of after-school TV specials - Sedaris got along with everyone during her high school years in Raleigh, North Carolina.
"I was a Girl Scout until my senior year, and I was in all the clubs," she says. "Plus, I had my family life. We were and are a really close family."
If you recognize that last name, it's because her brother David is the best-selling author of Naked, Me Talk Pretty One Day and other books of essays, many involving Amy. (The two also collaborated on several off-Broadway plays.)
"All my siblings do something interesting," says Sedaris when I point out her cool gene pool.
"One's a painter, another teaches first grade, one has a hardwood floor company and another does that thing with glue and ceramics and masonry that I can never remember." She pauses. "Mosaics."
"Everyone had a really good sense of humour. People like to think we were dysfunctional, but we weren't. We talked a lot, and were very supported and supportive. Maybe a close-knit family makes you cool."
Apart from the series' principles, who include a now more-famous Stephen Colbert (from The Daily Show and his own spinoff show), Strangers With Candy is filled with juicy little cameos by everyone from Sarah Jessica Parker - as a guidance counsellor who accepts tips - to Allison Janney and Philip Seymour Hoffman as board of education drones.
"I knew a lot of them already, and I always assume that everyone I know owes me big time," she jokes.
The show survived three seasons on Comedy Central, but reached a much bigger audience on DVD.
"Comedy Central never really got behind the show," admits Sedaris. "I guess there will always be misfits, outcasts and ugly people who relate to it."
As for the feature's release, she's hopeful that it will appeal to a wider audience.
"My goal is to make at least $300," she says, "because that's what they gave us to make it."
STRANGERS WITH CANDY (Paul Dinello) Rating: NN
Strangers With Candy suffers from the same problem as the lesser Saturday Night Live spinoffs. Its premise doesn't stretch out to feature length, and some bad jokes that might work in the lowest-common-denominator context of TV fall flat in the movie house.
In a prequel to the Comedy Central series, 40-something "boozer, user and loser" Jerri Blank (Amy Sedaris) returns from jail to discover that her father (Dan Hedaya) is in a coma. Hoping to revive him, she vows to turn her life around by re-enrolling in school and creating an award-winning science project.
Unevenly directed by Paul Dinello, the comedy's too broad and the jokes aren't properly set up. The many cameos look like they were all shot in a day. Only the science fair scene - staged like a musical - reaches the same bizarre heights (or maybe that should be depths) as the series.