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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Breakfast for schmucks

It’s been a slightly less than stellar 24 hours here in movie-land, at least as far as it regards managing ‘net access, which is why you’re not now looking at my usual box office preview. I’ll try to at least allude to this week’s very interest box office derby in a later post.

Though I’m embargoed from reviewing it before it’s 7/30 opening, and not sure how much opining I’m even allowed to do here, I can say that I attended a screening last night for the upcoming Jay Roach comedy starring Steve Carell and Paul Rudd, “Dinner for Schmucks” and that the brief scene below, while amusing in that humiliating way fans of “The Office” know so well, isn’t even close to being the funniest or best scene in a movie with a lot impressive comic set pieces — which is not saying it doesn’t have some significant faults, too, but you can wait to hear about those as well.

The movie’s real strength here is a strong supporting cast and, as oddly funny as Lucy Davenport and David Walliams of “Little Britain” are as a wackily pretentious Swiss billionaire and his wife, the comic stylings of Jemaine Clement of “Flight of the Conchords” as a wackily pretentious artist (a lot of wackiness and pretense going on in this film) and Zach Galifianakis of every-comedy-made-in-the-last-two-years as a dickie-wearing master of mind control are something to behold. Until you get a chance to see that, you’ll have to make do with this.

  

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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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Ten comments about the 2008 Emmy Awards

1. Call him a dick for saying it, but Jeremy Piven’s dismissal of the opening of this year’s ceremony during his acceptance speech was right on the money. After that brief montage of stars quoting classic TV catchphrases, Oprah killed the show stone dead with her opening remarks, and the never-ending sequence by the reality-show hosts was downright painful. It was the worst beginning to an Emmy broadcast that I can remember.

2. I liked “Recount” as much as the next guy, but Tom Hooper was robbed. He totally deserved to win the award for Outstanding Directing for a Miniseries, Movie, or a Dramatic Special for his work on “John Adams.” That said, Jay Roach defused my anger somewhat when he thanked “my rock ‘n’ roll sweetheart, Susanna Hoffs,” in his acceptance speech.

3. Don Rickles can be funnier with one motion of his eyebrow than Kathy Griffin is likely to be in her entire career…and, indeed, he proved this tonight.

4. Bryan Cranston, God love him, only won his Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series because of the split-vote phenomenon.

5. I’m not saying Josh Groban’s TV-themes medley was great, but hearing him screech Cartman’s lines in the “South Park” theme was worth the price of admission.

6. Ricky Gervais’s bit where he demanded that Steve Carrel return his Emmy was brilliant…but with that said, I went to see “Get Smart” at the local discount theater this weekend instead of paying full price to see “Ghost Town.” I’m just saying.

7. As happy as I was to see “Mad Men” win Outstanding Drama Series, I think I was just as psyched that “Damages” got the love it did in the acting categories. I might’ve picked Ted Danson to win over Zeljko Ivanek, I admit, but I’m sure as hell not complaining. Season 2 of that series can’t get here soon enough.

8. It was totally an industry joke, but when Tom Hanks thanked Chris Albrecht during his acceptance speech for “John Adams,” then cupped his ear to see if anyone would applaud, I laughed out loud.

9. Although way too much was made of the whole Outstanding Reality-Show Host award (and giving the Outstanding Reality-Show Competition award to “The Amazing Race” for the sixth consecutive year was abso-fricking-lutely ridiculous), Jimmy Kimmel’s waiting until after the commercial break to announce the winner was truly inspired.

10. Tommy Smothers is my hero.

  

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