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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Film Franchises from abroad, #2

Unlike the last film in this brief series of posts, you won’t see Americans remaking, I hope, the “OSS 117” series. Based on a series of previously filmed books that are, I understand, the French equivalent of James Bond, this new series sends up the genre with terrific period detail and an extremely funny lead performance from Jean Dujardin who goes way past Mike Meyers as Austin Powers and winds up closer to Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau. His Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath is a masterpiece of clue-free over-confidence.

It’s only playing in three theaters right now and I haven’t seen it yet myself, but if either spy spoofs or slapstick are your thing, you’ll probably want to check out “OSS 117: Lost in Rio,” which picks up the adventures of Monsieur Bonnisseur 12 years after the events of “OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies.” I’m certainly looking forward to it.

  

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“Dinner for Schmucks,” and you’re invited!

Joining “Kick-Ass” in the pantheon of film titles that would have been considered too crude by exhibitors and the MPAA not so terribly long ago is this buddy comedy. Directed by “Austin Powers” and “Meet the Parents” alum Jay Roach, the film stars Paul Rudd as an up-and-coming executive working for a company with a mean streak, Steve Carrell as the zany, small-of-brain titular character and some pretty great supporting comic cast members. (Just for the benefit of those of you outside the Jew-loop, “schmuck” loosely translates from Yiddish as “dick” — no capitalization needed.)

American remakes of French comedies don’t often seem to work and Roach is not really my all-time favorite director, but Carrell and Rudd are both very good in these kind of roles and the trailer makes me laugh. I think there may be some hope here. (H/t Peter Sciretta of /Film.)

Oh, and I should hardly even comment about the crudeness of this title, given that apparently Paramount has a movie coming up which, at least for a time, was entitled “Fuckbuddies.” I think they’ll be going with “Friends with Benefits” or some other name instead — or look for the from director Ivan Reitman to be coming to a theater near you shortly before or after the Rapture.

  

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Going forward to yesterday

Some of you may know that I have my own blog, Forward to Yesterday. Today we have numerous items that inspire movie déjà vu of various sorts. Below are just a few and there’s more where that came from. Expect a sequel.

* Steven Spielberg is set to produce, but not direct, a possible series of films based on Donald Hamilton’s Matt Helm character. Cinegeeks will recall that during the sixties spy craze Dean Martin starred in four not terribly well regarded, highly tongue-in-cheek films featuring a character who I gather has a lot more in common with Austin Powers than he does with Hamilton’s far grittier and more realistic creation. (I haven’t seen any since I was maybe six or seven at the oldest; I have a vague memory of Martin lounging in a giant bottle of champagne.)

Apparently the thinking here is to update the series, but to hew a lot closer to the books, which Wikipedia explains are about as far from spy spoofs as they could possibly be, and take a more “Bourne”/”24”-like approach (I gather torture plays a part in the first Helm novel, Death of a Citizen.). I’m weird and “Munich” is by far my favorite recent spy film, so I’m kind of sorry Spielberg won’t be doing this. In any case, I actually hope the filmmakers who take this on find their own path. I’m not sure why, but I could see Steven Soderbergh or Alfonso Cuarón nailing this one.

* Original “Alien” director Ridley Scott is attached to a proposed prequel. He did pretty well the first time around; I say it’s high time the kid got another chance.

* Much as I dig both Johnny Depp and Keith Richard, I’m not a fan of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise, though I’m rather fond of movies with sword fights in general. Nevertheless, Mike Fleming, who also brought us the Matt Helm news above, is here to tell you that, following up on the upcoming “Nine,” Rob Marshall’s next movie may be “Pirates 4.”

  

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