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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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A Chat With “Harper’s Island” Victim #12

It was a gut-wrenching death on this week’s “Harper’s Island,” partly because it was gruesome, partly because you were forced to sit there knowing full well that it was impending and couldn’t be stopped, but mostly because it was a character we knew more about than just about anyone else on the show.

This is another one of those cases where, although I wasn’t rooting for this person to get the call from Karim, I was still very much looking forward to talking to the actor in question…and, in fact, I enjoyed the interview so much that, although I’m not going to mention the person until after the jump, I will at least say this much to random web surfers who happen upon this entry: you don’t have to be a dedicated viewer of “Harper’s Island” to click onward. You could just be a fan of the work of David Milch (“Deadwood,” “John from Cincinnati”), or of “Supernatural,” and you’d still enjoy reading what lies after the jump.

So what are you waiting for?

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HBO moves on

With the series finale of “The Sopranos,” HBO is facing a crossroads. I’m not sure what percentage of the network’s subscribers were mainly (or only) interested in Tony Soprano and his family, but it has to be significant. HBO is aware that they need to quickly develop more good programming if they hope to keep the train going down the tracks.

Their first hour-long effort is “John from Cincinnati” (from “Deadwood” creator David Milch). The series revolves around San Diego family of surfers as they encounter a strange visitor, who acts as if he might be from another planet. In just two episodes, Milch has introduced a bevy of interesting characters and, as far as the language and dialogue goes, the show actually has a very “Deadwood” feel to it. There are a number of familiar faces in the cast, including Rebecca De Mornay (who is excellent as the family’s matriarch), Ed O’Neill, Luis Guzman and Luke Perry.

In the half-hour comedy category, “Flight of the Conchords” follows Jemaine and Bret, two aspiring musicians from New Zealand, as they navigate New York City. It’s a musical of sorts, as the duo occasionally break out into quirky songs that relate to whatever is going on in their life. The premiere was quite funny, especially the song Jemaine sings to a girl at a party. If the Barenaked Ladies had developed a sitcom (and never released “One Week,” which made them too popular) and enlisted Wes Anderson to direct, it might have turned out like this.

So far, so good.

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