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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“Defying Gravity” worth a look

Originally pitched to networks as “‘Grey’s Anatomy’ in space,” I was a bit leery heading into the first episode of “Defying Gravity,” which follows eight astronauts as they embark on a six-year mission through our solar system. The series is set in 2052, but features plenty of flashbacks to 2047, when this group of astronauts first started training for this mission.

I gave up on Ms. Meredith Grey a while ago, but I guess I can see the comparison. This series features a relatively small cast of core characters who live and work together. There’s an extremely cute heroine, Zoe (Laura Harris, who played Daisy Adair on the Showtime series “Dead Like Me”), and the gruff but likable hero, Maddux (played by the ever-watchable Ron Livingston, of “Office Space,” “Band of Brothers” and “Swingers” fame). The two are — wait for it — star-crossed lovers who can’t seem to get together despite an obvious attraction. There’s a history between these two, but I’ll stop there as to avoid ruining it for anyone.

This isn’t Maddux’s first time in space. On a previous mission to Mars, he was ordered to leave two crew mates by his commander, who is now running this mission years later. There is all sorts of ill will about that failed mission, which leads to loads of subtext and mean looks.

“Defying Gravity” is an ensemble drama, but Livingston and Harris are its heart and soul. Whether or not it’s for you will largely depend on whether or not you like these two characters. For something that falls in the sci-fi genre, it’s not terribly exciting or thrilling, but there’s a subtlety to the show that is engaging. With time, it ferments. And there’s an underlying sci-fi storyline that will keep the fanboys happy, at least for while.

I’m not sure that the series will last, as ratings have been less than stellar. It shed about 20% of its audience after the pilot, but has held onto virtually everyone who made it to the third episode. It’s slow place would seem to indicate one of those ambitious, long-term plans that may never see the light of day. But if it gets a second season, it’s worth a look on DVD.

  

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