Press Conference for “Schmucks”

For those of us who enjoy contemplating the historical and political currents that run through film history, it’s tempting to look at the latest comedy from director Jay Roach (“Austin Powers,” “Meet the Parents,” “Recount”) as a possible reflection of American discomfort at the brutal nature of business and the growing disparities between the wealthy and the increasingly lumpen middle-class. However, when you’re talking about a movie that ends with a confrontation between a good idiot (Steve Carell) who designs amazing dioramas using dead mice and an evil idiot (Zach Galifianakis) with the power of mind control, but only over other idiots, that may be taking things a little seriously.

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Opening this Friday, “Dinner for Schmucks” borrows its premise and some of its plot from Frances Veber’s 1998 “The Dinner Game.” Paul Rudd co-stars as Barry, a rising L.A. executive who finds that entering his company’s upper echelon will mean participating in a competitive Dinner for Winners. All the guests are to bring an extraordinary person who has been unrecognized by society — in other words, a dithering idiot. The winner of the nasty game is the one whose guest is the most amusingly stupid.

Barry is initially appalled by the idea and assures Julie (Stephanie Szostak), his horrified art curator girlfriend, he’ll have nothing to do with it. On the other hand, he needs to pay for his Porsche and his absurdly large apartment at West Hollywood’s Sunset Tower Hotel (in real life, you’d need a billionaire’s wealth to afford that). It’s a choice between being nice and being unemployed and in debt. Then the fates seem to reward him when, driving through a quainted-up version of Westwood Village, he nearly runs over Tim Wagner (Carell), a clueless IRS employee and ultra-naive artist committed to his “mousterpieces.” Wagner, of course, turns out to be a goodhearted type whose attempts to help his new friend backfire in increasingly absurd ways. Fortunately, most of them are funny, particularly thanks to some outstanding and often completely unhinged supporting performances from Zach Galifianakis and Jemaine Clement of “Flight of the Conchords” as an absurdly pretentious and untalented, but hugely successful, artist on the make for Barry’s increasingly angry girlfriend and all other attractive women on the planet.

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“Dinner for Schmucks” isn’t going to electrify cinephiles or become a staple of screenwriting seminars, but a couple of weeks back it had proven itself to be a very effective laugh-getting machine at a West L.A. screening. Therefore, full of a free breakfast, a selection of journos were in a pretty good mood for a morning press conference at the Beverly Hilton with a number of funny and/or talented people, including stars Carell and Rudd, supporting bad guys Bruce Greenwood (“Star Trek“) and Ron Livingston (“Office Space“) as well as director Roach and writers David Guion and Michael Handelman, who are about to become directors themselves with the film version of the BBC comedy, “Cruise of the Gods.”

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Adam McKay talks “The Goods,” “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters”

Anyone who’s a fan of Will Ferrell’s work will recognize the name of Adam McKay. The two have been in cahoots virtually since the day they met…which, as it happens, was the day they were both hired for “Saturday Night Live” (along with David Koechner, Cheri Oteri, and writer Tom Gianis)…and they’ve turned their collaboration on sketches like “Neil Diamond: Storytellers” and the ongoing saga of Bill Brasky into an partnership which has found McKay directing Ferrell in “Anchorman,” “Talladega Nights,” and “Step Brothers.” It’s also led to a successful production company – Gary Sanchez Productions – which has brought us HBO’s “Eastbound and Down,” “The Foot Fist Way,” and, most recently, the used-car comedy, “The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard.”

“The Goods” was kinda sorta buried at the box office by the competition, but Roger Ebert describes it as a “cheerfully energetically and very vulgar comedy,” adding, “If you’re okay with that, you may be okay with this film, which contains a lot of laughs and has studied Political Correctness only enough to make a list of groups to offend.” Hey, sounds good to me…and although McKay was doing the press rounds this week in what one presumes was an attempt by Paramount to kick up the buzz for the film a little more, he seems pretty comfortable no matter what the resulting numbers are this weekend.

“Regardless, we’re either gonna be a small little box office surprise or we’re gonna be a cult cable hit,” he said, with a laugh. “It’ll be one way or the other. But it certainly makes us laugh, so we’re happy about that.”

Producer Kevin Messick came to McKay and Ferrell with the script for “The Goods” with star Jeremy Piven already attached, and after giving it a read, McKay couldn’t have been more enthusiastic about the actor’s involvement.

“Oh, my God, if there’s ever a role that you’re going to have him play coming off the success he’s had as Ari Gold (in ‘Entourage’), it’s this role,” said McKay. “And we thought, ‘Well, we can do a rewrite on this, kind of gussy this up, get people we like in it, and sort of approach it through improv.’ Will and I had written a car-salesman script about five or six years before that, which Lorne Michaels tried to get made at Paramount, but it was a weird time over there, and we couldn’t get it made, and it was very frustrating. So we saw this script come through, and we thought, ‘Well, this is perfect.’”

Some may hear about the concept of this film and think, “Didn’t they already do this with ‘Used Cars’?” Although McKay is a fan of the classic 1980 Robert Zemeckis comedy and admits that it’s one of the reasons that the idea of the movie was so attractive to him, he estimates that 8 out of 10 people don’t even remember the film.

“It’s a film-fan movie,” he said. “I love it, of course, but it was so long ago. It’s kind of amazing that there really haven’t been many car-salesman movies since then. There was ‘Cadillac Man,’ but that wasn’t really about car sales. My favorite salesman movies are ‘Tin Men’ and ‘Glengarry Glen Ross,’ and that’s really what got us excited about it. If anything, ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’ was a huge influence on this movie. Even though this movie’s raunchy and absurd and silly, that vibe is still very funny to us.”

And so, by many folks’ estimations, is “The Goods,” although – appropriately, given the subject of the film – your mileage may vary.

McKay is currently in pre-production for his next directorial effort, “The Other Guys,” but that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have his eye on what project will be next on the horizon. He’s excited at the prospect of branching out beyond his usual realm, and in addition to the sci-fi satire, “Channel Three Billion,” he’s particularly chomping at the bit to get the ball rolling on the intriguingly-titled “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters,” from writer/director Tommy Wirkola.

“I love that movie,” said McKay. “That’s exactly the kind of shit where, like, it almost veers a little more toward Sam Raimi Land. Yeah, our production company, Gary Sanchez, is producing that. We saw ‘Dead Snow,’ the movie that Tommy did first, and Kevin Messick had Tommy come in, and he told us about this ‘Hansel & Gretel’ idea, and we were instantly, like, ‘Oh, my God, we’re doing that.’ And then he wrote an amazing script, so I’m as excited about that as anything we’re doing.”

Be sure to head over to Bullz-Eye.com next week for the full interview with McKay, where discusses the history of his collaboration with Ferrell, the status of “Anchorman 2,” and what we can expect from the second season of “Eastbound and Down.”

  

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Greetings to the New Show: “Eastbound and Down”

I’ve never actually seen “The Foot Fist Way,” the motion picture which really served to bring Danny McBride to prominence (he wrote and starred in the film), but when a review written by someone whose opinion you trust opens with the lines, “The first 30 minutes of ‘The Foot Fist Way’ are as intolerable as anything released in the last ten years,” it’s the kind of sentiment that keeps a movie from working its way up the hierarchy of your Netflix queue. I have, however, seen and loved “Tropic Thunder,” and I’ve heard a lot of good things about “Pineapple Express,” so I do still have a certain degree of respect for Mr. McBride. Therefore, when I heard that he was going to be starring in a new series for HBO that would be executive-produced by Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, the duo who have brought us “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy,” “Talledega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby,” and “Stepbrothers,” there was every reason to believe that the combination would prove to be a successful one.

“Eastbound and Down” certainly starts promisingly, with a flashback laying out the career of Kenny Powers, a major-league baseball player who has seen the highest heights one can reach in the sport, including cover stories for every magazine from Highlights to Cat Fancy to American Woodworker. “Everyone wanted a piece of my shit,” says Powers, in a voiceover, describing himself as a man with “an arm like a fucking cannon.” Unfortunately, as with so many athletes who get a taste of glory and then dive headlong into the trough, Powers’ ego expands to a size far larger than his home state of North Carolina. He begins to blame his failures on his team, so he leaves Atlanta, becomes a free agent, and starts a career freefall which seems him moving from New York (“You mean Jew York?”), Baltimore and San Francisco (“I gotta tell ya, I thought the blacks in Baltimore were bad, but it turns out they’re nothing compared to these fags they got in San Francisco”), Boston, and Seattle.

Seattle, however, proved too much for the man, and after proving directly responsible for the team’s devastating loss against Los Angeles, things fade to black for Powers, and after a caption which reads, “Several shitty years later,” he find that he’s now out of baseball and has carried his remaining belongings back home to the state known as North Kakalaki to work as a middle-school substitute teacher…and it’s at this point that feelings about “Eastbound and Down” will begin to vary wildly.

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