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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Rock and roll gender wars

More in my series of clips featuring fake bands from the movies inspired more or less by Aldous Snow and Infant Sorrow, the band in “Get Him to the Greek.”

As Roger Ebert notes in the DVD commentary to Russ Meyer’s “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls,” it was kind of progressive to make a movie about an all-female rock band in 1970. They were certainly rare as hens-teeth in real life untilĀ  several years later the Runaways, the Go-Gos, and finaly the Bangles broke the rock and roll gender barrier. I’m not sure how inspired any of them were were by the Carrie Nations, the fictional band in the film directed by Meyer and written by Roger Ebert, but this opening sure shows Meyer’s remarkable filmmaking approach and a hint of what kind of dialogue you can expect when you let a movie critic write a movie. (A later scene features the immortal words spoken by a Phil Spector-esque impressario: ‘This is my happening and it’s freaking me out.” That’s Ebert, baby.)

By 2001, of course, women in both real and cinematic rock bands were hardly unusual. On the other hand, there weren’t too many rock and roll band transsexuals, and there was just one victim of a botched sex change operation. Below, Hedwig and the Angry Inch explain the meaning of their name. It’s not necessarily an experience for the faint of heart, but it sure is rock and roll.

  

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