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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Amanda Seyfried, Erin Cressida Wilson, and Atom Egoyan on “Chloe”

Movies involve looking at people. Sometimes those people are doing some pretty intimate things, too. No wonder then that voyeurism remains about the single most pervasive and discussed theme in the movies and, no matter how often the particularly cinematic obsession of voyeurism has been recycled, there’s always room for a new angle.

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In the case of “Chloe,” which is hitting about three hundred theaters nationwide today, voyeurism in the form of morbid curiosity threatens not only the desiccated relationship of an affluent middle-aged couple played by Julianne Moore and Liam Neeson, but also the woman’s familial ties with her son (Max Theiriot) and possibly her entire life. The vehicle for all of this is a young woman Dr. Catherine Stewart bumps into who turns out to be a high-end sex worker named Chloe (Amanda Seyfried). The sex work in question here is that Dr. Stewart has some pretty good reasons to worry that her professor husband may be cheating, and so she asks Chloe to test her husband’s fidelity in the most direct way possible.

As for the results, all you really need to know right now is that this is an erotic thriller, that it’s directed by the elliptical art-house master Atom Egoyan at his most Hitchcockian, and adapted with some definite cunning by writer Erin Cressida Wilson from a relatively banal French import (2003’s “Nathalie”). Interestingly, “Chloe” is also produced by Ivan Reitman. Reitman is, of course, the famed director and producer far better known for broad comedies like “Meatballs” and “Ghostbusters” than for stylish melodramas. These days, he’s perhaps even better known as the father of “Up in the Air” co-writer and director Jason Reitman.

Sadly, “Chloe” will likely also be remembered as the movie that was interrupted when leading man Liam Neeson got the horrific news that his wife, Natasha Richardson, had died as the result of what appeared to be a minor skiing accident. Even a year later, it’s obviously a sensitive topic that was not broached at the first of two press days I attended at the L.A. Four Seasons to promote the film with Amanda Seyfried, a burgeoning film star after the success of such films as “Dear John” and “Momma Mia!,” and Erin Cressida Wilson, who is probably best known for her screenplay for the kinky romantic comedy-drama, “Secretary” starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader.

Things got off to what I suppose is an appropriate start given the kind of movie “Chloe” is. Asked about a word tattooed on her ankle, Seyfried volunteered it was crude British slang word for “vagina” — it’s apparently a kind of joking term of endearment used by her and friends. And then there was the European journalist who was clearly tasked with getting material as gossip-rich as he could manage. As the inevitably top-of-mind topic of the film’s somewhat explicit nude sex scenes came up, as well as the inherent difficulty of doing those scenes, his felt the need to ask which of the cast members was the best kisser. Seyfried, somewhat outspoken and girlish, but also clearly a pro at 24 years of age, sidestepped the icky question. Fortunately, someone came up a query that was more germane if no less sensational: Did she meet with any real-life prostitutes to research the role?

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“No. Atom actually met with some working ladies in New York and I believe in Toronto as well…It was interesting what he had to say and how he approached it. He was very open about the information that he needed and they were very willing to share. And that’s the same with Chloe; she’s very willing to share that part of her life because she feels like it and in a way it’s being justified by [the fact that] someone’s asking you about your job.”

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