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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Here, have some movie news with your left over brisket

If you’re noticing that film bloggers and journos seem to grasping at news straws, blame the Passover/Easter spring break slow down. Anyhow, as folks work off all that schmaltz and matzoh at the gym, let’s nevertheless briefly consider a few items of some interest.

* For starters we have the kind of “breaking news” that isn’t really news at all. It’s looking like “The Hangover 2” is going to be a lot more expensive than the first because, you know, the cast would like to be paid a lot more this time and there was a lot of haggling. Can’t blame them . However, as much as I liked the first movie, it did not in any way cry out for a sequel. As the first commenter at Deadline|New York says, lightning doesn’t strike twice — except, of course, when it does. We’ll see.

* More sequel news  — well, rumor reported as news — Will Smith is supposedly “locked in” for “Independence Day” sequels. (H/t Anne Thompson.) Momentum may be building here and the story could be true. Director Roland Emmerich dropped a hint or two about it in a recent interview with our own David Medsker recently. We’ll see.

* And, you know how I always make a big deal about not prejudging movies. The E*Trade talking baby movie is sorely tempting me to make an exception. No. We won’t see.

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* Three brief items from THR. First, pretty Kaley Cuoco of “The Big Bang Theory” will be going cinematic in a partially animated flick comedy that involves Russell Brand voicing the Easter Bunny; it’s called “I Hop.” Also, LeBron James‘ next coach might be director Malcolm D. Lee. And, finally, two comedy writers who apparently enjoy bowling have been hired to work on the “Baywatch” movie, Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka. Tanaka has the kind of cross-ethnic name that, I think, could influence a guy to go into comedy, though I’m thinking “Kazuhiro Saperstein” would have been even better.

* I’m late to the viral video party, but the “Scarface school play” vid isn’t nearly as funny as it sounds. I guess thinking it was “real” could help, but how could anyone think it was real?

* The new film from master documentarian Errol Morris (“The Fog of War,” “Standard Operating Procedure“) sounds really interesting and potentially even more controversial than any film he’s made because it’s apparently lighthearted. Some might not agree that’s appropriate given the main character’s crime. Read the Playlist’s description and see if you agree.

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Will “Couples” find box office fulfillment?

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As if the movie gods themselves wished to offer me some breathing space, this weekend has only one new wide release, and it sure doesn’t strike me as anything to get very excited about. Our own Jason Zingale — who enjoyed seeing a reunion of “Swingers” pals Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau — gave a pretty tepid, just this side of positive, review to “Couples Retreat.” Jason’s take, however, is a hysterical rave compared to the blistering reviews that had the film at a pretty darn rotten 09% “fresh” Rotten Tomatoes rating.

Nevertheless, audiences may differ from the critics. The comedy does boast the appeal of the all-mid-level star cast, which also includes the very talented Jason Bateman and Kristen Bell. Also, the fact that the R-rated blood/body-parts splatter comedy, “Zombieland,” and the PG-rated family food splatter science fiction comedy, “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs,” are dominating the box office right now means that there’s not a whole lot out there in wide release for the non-splattery date movie trade.

Whip ItNow, Fox Searchlight’s hopes of good word-of-mouth-based box office could pan out for the girl-powered sports comedy, “Whip It.” So, if director Peter Billingsley — yes, Ralphie from “A Christmas Story” — wants to avoid a nasty box office defeat, he’ll have to hope there are no pleasant suprises for his fellow ex-child star making a feature directorial debut, Drew Barrymore. Variety‘s Andrew Stewart says the lately somewhat beleaguered Universal expects “decent numbers” whatever those are, but my hunch is that “Couples” will be lucky to be in the top five on this weekend’s hit parade and may not crack double digits. However, I’m nearly always wrong when I stray from the experts. We shall see.

The remaining action this weekend is in terms of limited releases. As per Box Office Mojo, other than some potential Oscar fare we may be discussing in coming weeks, we have “Good Hair,” from Chris Rock and director Jeff Stilson getting excellent reviews and debuting in 185 theaters, as well as the LeBron James-headlined sports documentary, “More Than a Game,” expanding into 44 theaters. “From Mexico With Love,” an old-school boxing/message picture being aimed at the Latino market, is also getting a very decent sized release in 285 theaters. The earnest looking drama has been so successfully hidden from critics so far, it’s not even appearing on Rotten Tomatoes new release listing.

Oh, and I almost forgot the one release that’s probably destined to be more than a trivia question after this week is over. After an extremely successful midnight-only release last week, the canny scarefest “Paranormal Activity” will be getting a normal release in 159 screens this weekend. As it happens, I saw it last night and will be writing up the review after I’m done here, but suffice it to say for now that I personally observed a bunch of presumably jaded, mostly youngish, industry-connected folks at a screening on the Paramount lot last night doing a pretty good impression of the folks in the trailer — well, maybe laughing at their own fear a bit more. This is not just hype.

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Trailer Alert: “More Than a Game”

It might seem a little strange to be releasing a documentary about LeBron James’ high school basketball glory days six years after he was drafted into the NBA, but with the NBA Finals in full swing and the Cleveland Cavaliers considered a frontrunner to win the championship, it really couldn’t come at a better time. To be fair, Kristopher Belman’s documentary, “More Than a Game,” isn’t only about LeBron (it’s actually about the group of friends who played together at St. Vincent–St. Mary High School in Akron, Ohio), but it’s hard to imagine anyone seeing the film for anything other than him.

With that said, check out the first trailer for the documentary below. It actually looks pretty good (almost like a cinematic version of the book, “The Fab Five”), though you’ll have to wait until October to check it out.

  

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