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July 5-11, 2006

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'Strangers With Candy'

School Days: Stephen Colbert and Amy Sedaris tackle the high school exit exam in 'Strangers With Candy.'

Summer School

Amy Sedaris and Stephen Colbert reprise their Comedy Central series 'Strangers With Candy'

By Richard von Busack

AS PLAYED by Amy Sedaris, the world's greatest female drag queen, Jerri Blank is an alarming sight: cellulite wobbling under tight pants, eyes frozen in an arrested squint, a debauched face as toothy as a carved beaver on a totem pole. Her eyebrows are painted with Joan Crawford's old spray gun, and the ensemble is crowned with the last of the Geraldine Ferraro "helmet hair" coiffures. Strangers With Candy should be classified as No. 50 1/2 on AFI's list of the 50 Most Inspirational Movies Ever Made. What could be more uplifting that the story of a teenage runaway, crack-addict and pavement princess who at age of 42 returns home and goes for her diploma?

Just out of prison, Jerri returns to find Dad (Dan Hedaya) comatose from grief, Mom in an urn and an evil stepmother running the joint. Determined to make good, Jerri goes back to get her diploma but finds discrimination from the "populars" at Flatpoint High School. The school has an imperious principal (Greg Hollimon) who rejoices in the name "Onyx Blackman." Imagine a mother with a "What to Name the Baby" book working her way down the roster of semiprecious stones before settling on a rock used to make tourist hash pipes in Juarez. To see Onyx is get a crush on him; he has an organlike voice, a mammoth bald head and a slow double take, like Margaret Dumont parsing one of Groucho Marx's ambiguous compliments. Principal Blackman's spot of embezzlement has endangered the school, and the school needs to win a crucial science fair to stay open. In what seems like a hopeless effort, Jerri takes on the challenge, with the aid of an Indonesian exchange student (Carlos Alban) and her soon-to-be-regular chum Tammi (Maria Thayer); the latter is an innocent little redheaded girl perplexed by Jerri's mysterious question about whether "the carpet matches the drapes."

Strangers With Candy is a prequel to the TV series. America's most respected commentator, Stephen Colbert, re-creates his role as Chuck Noblet, inept yet portentous history teacher and clandestine lover of art teacher Geoffrey Jellineck (the film's director, Paul Dinello). The course of the two teachers' true love is roughened by Noblet's I-would-yet-I-dare-not sweet talk, such as "I need more out of this relationship than I'm willing to put in." Guest stars pad the skinny plot, including Allison Janney (seduced by Onyx) and Philip Seymour Hoffman (traduced by Onyx). Sarah Jessica Parker shows up as a grief counselor who solicits cash tips, and Ian Holm is the Blank family doctor who reminisces about how Jerri was born with a full set of teeth. (Holm the Shakespearean probably remembers how the same was said of Richard III, as a preview of his bad character.)

Compared to that crowned hunchback, Jerri has a winning personality, which is one way of describing a person who will sleep with anyone, man or mule. If what made Napoleon Dynamite work was the idea of the wrath in the weirdo's heart, Sedaris gets at that essence. Hilarious when being crushed, she's also divine when she's lashing out. If they'd only remake Monster with Jerri Blank in the Charlize Theron role.

Movie Times Strangers With Candy (R; 87 min.), directed by Paul Dinello, written by Dinello, Amy Sedaris, Stephen Colbert and Mitch Rouse, photographed by Oliver Bokelberg and starring Sedaris, Colbert and Dinello, opens July 7.

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