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.
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.
“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.”
The first question proved to be a starting point for some light shtick between Rudd and Carell, who have worked together previously to great comic effect in “Anchorman” and Carrel’s breakthrough comedy, “The 40 -Year-Old Virgin.”
So, what was the most challenging scene in the film, Mr. Carell?
“We shot a scene where Paul had injured his back. We shot it for about a day and a half, and I had to hug Paul, for a day and a half,” said Carrel.
“That’s challenging for anyone,” Rudd admitted.
“And to lift him,” Carell continued, “because he was giving me nothing.”
“No,” Rudd agreed. “The only way to sell it is to just go dead weight.”
“So,” Carell agreed, “that was probably the most physically challenging aspect of the movie. Terrible, terrible answer. Don’t write that.”
Perhaps feeling that it was maybe a little early yet for too much silliness, Rudd — who comes from a ‘real’ acting background but has an obvious gift for comedy — gave a serious answer. “It’s always challenging. Everything you ever work on is challenging. Just to show up and try be real and not look as if I’m playing at anything. Just try and be the character. It’s always work.”
So, would Paul care to elaborate on the challenges of being a straight man while Carell is having all the “fun” in a movie like “Schmucks”?
“It’s a challenge not to ruin the take by laughing. I didn’t rise to that challenge on many occasions…It’s weird, my definitions of ‘comedy’ and ‘drama’ or ‘straight man,’ all that kind of stuff, they’re all blurry for me. I don’t really think of it in those terms,” he said, talking about how the events of the film forced him to be “reactive” which he said can be not so easy to sustain for the course of an entire feature film. He likes to think “not so much in terms of jokes,” but more in terms of the character, Rudd said.
Then, the same questioner noticed some new facial hair on Rudd. “What’s with the beard?”
“I’m getting ready to start a movie on Monday.”
“That’s a lie,” Carell interjected. “He’s just doing it for fun.”
Rudd quickly changed his story. “I came in this morning at about 6:00 A.M. and applied it with spirit gum and hair from my back. It took about an hour. And it’s like, what’s going to be fun to wear in New York City summer heat?”
The next questioner asked if perhaps the issue of ruining takes might have arisen during Jemaine Clement’s hilarious straight faced bits. She wondered if the wacky but extremely self-serious character was inspired by anyone in real life.
“It is hard, Jemaine cracks me up. He got these guys laughing a little bit too,” said Roach. “We based the character a little bit on Matthew Barney [of the epic-length, famously disturbing “Cremaster” art film cycle] and a little bit on Peter Beard and a little bit the guy from Ashes and Snow [Gregory Colbert]. We mostly wanted to have a character who is so convinced not only that he was an artist in the most important sense of the word, but he was the best thing that ever happened to art and, really, the world… And also that he had to be convincing as a rival for Paul’s character’s girlfriend. Despite Jemaine’s character and vibe that he portrays on the ‘Conchords,’ I always thought that he was kind of hunky.”
What did the actors think about working with Clement? Had they ever bumped into him previously?
“I’d never met him before,” said Carell. “He’s fantastic. He’s a really good improviser in the sense that you never feel him going for a joke. You never get a sense that he’s waiting for his turn to say something or do something funny. He’s really just a part of the scene and always ends up making it better. He’s also a really fine actor. He committed to that character so completely. There was a sense of calmness about him and a sense of inner dignity to the character in the face of its absurdity which I just loved. He was a hard person to work with and not ruin takes because he’s so, so good.”
Rudd chimed in. “It’s funny in that it seems like it’s a character that’s broad in that his look is very defined. His style and vocation is such a specific thing, but he’s so good with subtlety. There were many, many moments when he would just kind of say something that wasn’t a joke but would just really make me laugh,” Rudd said. As an example, he referred to a line in the film when, for reasons too complicated or too silly to explain, his character is alleged to have gonorrhea and his utterly straightforward response, “I don’t have gonorrhea,” struck Rudd as funny on the set. (It is in the movie, as well.). “He’s weirdly soft-spoken about it. He’s good in everything.”
Then came the inevitable question for the actors about what attracted them to the project. (Just once, I would like to hear. “I needed the money. No, I’m not kidding. I need cash.” Most actors aren’t rich.)
Carell led the charge on this one. “Working with Jay and working with Paul, those were enormous factors for me. I liked the storyline too. I thought it was funny. It was a little weird. It had a heart to it. And I tend to like things that have a gray area to them. Like the character that Paul plays; here’s a guy who’s very conflicted. He’s not a bad guy but he’s at a moral impasse in his life. ..It actually said something very kind, ultimately.”
Rudd didn’t disagree. “Yeah, and the people involved. I thought the script was really funny. That was really it. It was kind of a no-brainer. I was so excited to get offered the part.”
Then, finally, the really fine and underrated, and usually non-comic, actor Bruce Greenwood spoke. Greenwood is having a career renaissance these days and is probably best known to contemporary audiences as Christopher Pike in the J.J. Abram’s “Star Trek” reboot. He has, however, been a busy and highly acclaimed working actor since the 1980s, notably delivering a truly world-class performance as a tax accountant dealing with an immense personal tragedy in Atom Egoyan, “Exotica.” He was also remarkably focused and memorable in David Milch’s misfired “John from Cincinnati.”
“For me it was working with Jay and Paul and Steve,” Greenwood said, praising the script and the approach. “When you have this premise of making fun of people, it has a chance of being mean-spirited [but] it has this big heart… that appealed to me on an emotional level as well.”
Ron Livingston, whose inoffensive looks and knack for putting on a vaguely insincere demeanor has put him in numerous regular guy and sleazy business guy parts, took a page from the Ringo Starr playbook. “I’m just happy to be here.”
After the laugh subsided Livingston decided to elaborate. “I think sometimes you have to try to imagine in your head what it’s going to look like. The great thing about this one was we’ve actually had a chance to see Steve and Paul work together [before] and it’s brilliant,” Livingston said. “There’s a comfort level there and a playfulness… I think Jay does a great job having character comedy meet physical comedy in a way that you don’t really give up one to jump into the other. I was just thrilled, actually, to be along for the ride.”
Then a journalist from Asia brought up the topic of both Steve Carell’s Emmy nomination and his recently announced decision to leave “The Office” once his contract expires at the end of the upcoming seventh season.
“I’ll let Jay [Roach] take this one,” Carell joked, but he eventually got around to the topic. His response, while sincere, won’t win any prizes for originality. “I always wanted to honor my contract and I felt like now is a good time for the character to move on and for me to move on personally. I want to spend more time with my wife and kids. That’s really the impetus behind that decision there.”
Paul Rudd, however, had the real bombshell. “And Steve will be playing for the Miami Heat next year.” (Yes, the press conference was the morning after LeBron James’ announcement.)
“Very exciting,” Carell added. “Scranton is burning my Jersey.”
Then, someone brought up theword “schmuck.” Now, for those of you who’ve only heard the world colloquially and assume it means nothing more than “idiot” or “fool,” the Yiddish word “schmuck” is the fairly precise Yiddish equivalent to “dick” in all its many meanings, other than as a nickname for “Richard.” It is also fair to add that the word actually derives from the German word for “jewel” — as in “family jewels” — and that Yiddish is very nearly a dead language, killed by the decision to make Hebrew Israel’s national language, and it’s been many decades since it’s been used in a sexual context by many people. A writer from a prominent Jewish publication, therefore, asked about how it ended up in the title.
Jay Roach took on the question. “The script was called that when it was first sent to me. For me, it’s kind of an ideal word for what the story is about. In modern usage it has two meanings. Like ‘don’t be a schmuck’ can mean ‘don’t be a jerk,’ which is what Paul Rudd’s character is going through and ‘don’t be an idiot’ which is what you think Steve Carrel’s character is going through… To me, it both is a funny word to say but it also resonated [with] what the two characters were about.”
The questioner responded that the offense some people might be taking was more of a generational thing, and asked if anyone involved with the film had received negative feedback from elderly Jewish relatives.
Paul Rudd seemed to think the question was intended strictly for him. “Go right to the Jew — you know, I was in schul on Saturday, and…” joked America’s reigning movie Jewish American Prince. “No, my grandfather used to call me a ‘schmuck’ all the time,” Rudd said.
After some difficulty to transcribe/describe silliness, Rudd continued. “I remember growing up, I’d say, ‘Oh, God, “putz” is such a funny word.’… I always thought like, ‘Oh, “putz” is an idiot. And I remember my dad saying, ‘Well, you know, actually a putz is a penis’ — what’s up with the all words by the way, for ‘penis’ — it always took on, I think, not so much a specificity but general ‘oh, you’re being an idiot.’… I know that there are some people, I read it too, that might take offense to the fact that it’s ‘Dinner for Schmucks.’ It wouldn’t have even crossed my mind.”
“Also, ‘Dinner for Wieners’ didn’t test well,’ added Ron Livingston.
Following a brief discussion of Rudd’s charter membership in the Judd Apatow stock company and how Seth Rogen had dubbed it “the Jew-Tang Clan,” it was on to less Hebraic matters. In particular, with Steve Carrel’s involvement in “The Office” winding down, would he be taking on projects that he was more directly involved with himself?
“I just completed a movie with Ryan Gosling and Julianne Moore, that’s the first movie my production company’s producing. That’ll come out sometime next year,” said Carrel. “I hope that I’m able to start writing again once my tenure at ‘The Office’ is done.”
The next question was on the topic of Zach Galifianakis’s remarkable performance as Carrel’s coworker and nemesis. The questioner said he felt “it looked like Marlon Brando and Andy Kaufman going at it.”
“Marlon Brando and Andy Kaufman”? Carell interrupted. “I’m trying to figure out who’s who… Now I can’t get that combination out of my head. I want to see that movie,” Carell added, but then actually addressed the question about the hard to spell/pronounce Mr. G.
“He is intensely funny and his brain works a different way than most people, and I think that’s part of what makes him so great. [It’s] that his thought processes are very unique to him. He, too, I think is a really good actor because he comes in and he enters a scene as a character and he takes in his environment. He’s really committed to the character and not just to being funny or to think of funny things to say. Everything he says comes from within his character… He was really a joy to improvise with and act opposite.”
The writer then wanted to clarify that Carell was still going to be making movies, and not “going to work in his sister’s general store,” after finishing ‘The Office.'”
“I’ll only make ‘Office’ movies,” Carell joked.
Moving on, the next topic was the similarities and differences between “Dinner for Schmucks” and the more theatrical French film “The Dinner Game,” adapted by director Frances Veber from his own play. Jay Roach was quick to praise the prior film which, unlike “Schmucks,” does not include an actual dinner.
“It’s more ‘inspired by’ than ‘based on’ but it was a great hook… Frances is like the Mike Nichols of France. I’m sure he’d rather just be the Frances of France. He writes great farce, ‘La Cage Aux Folles,” “La Valise” and all these films. He’s a hero of mine and I felt lucky to get to be able to work on a story of his.”
And then the radio interviewer next to me was astute enough to address a question to Bruce Greenwood, asking him about the differences between doing a broad comedy like “Schmucks” as opposed to the sometimes deadly serious films he’s been best known for until recently. “Not that there weren’t some thigh-slappers in ‘Exotica,'” he added.
“But they were naked thighs,” Greenwood interjected, commenting on Atom Egoyan’s tragedy-laced 1994 drama set in a Toronto strip club. As for doing this kind of broad comedy, he apparently had a fairly hard time at first.
“I spent the whole first day just weeping into my handkerchief. I just couldn’t stop laughing…vIt was great fun to be around.”
But is the actor’s cliche that “dying is easy but comedy is hard” true?
“Yeah. I’m used to doing stuff where you say what’s in the script,” said Greenwood, getting a laugh. “The first couple of days I just watched these guys with my jaw on the floor and then Jay says, just go at it. See what happens. It was a lot of fun.”
A discussion with the writers followed regarding a key difference between the lead character in “The Dinner Game,” who starts out the film as fairly unsympathetic, and Paul Rudd’s more conflicted character, who desperately wants money and success but who is almost as appalled as he should be by the “Dinner for Winners.” Was it perhaps a studio decision to please the presumably more darkness-averse American audience?
The answer, we were told, was not really — at least not consciously. “It seemed a little bit more interesting to us if you could see both sides of his character, and if he at the start of the film was a little bit at war with himself,” said Michael Handelman.
“In the original, that character very much is sort of a jaded guy who you feel like has lived a sinful existence for a very long time. There’s something about Paul being a younger guy where we wanted to deal with someone who was at a turning point in his life,” said David Guion.
“Paul is really at a turning point in his life,” kidded writer Handelman. “We don’t know if the good or the bad Paul is going to win.”
“Bad Paul,” said Paul Rudd.
And then it was my turn to ask a question. Correctly noting that the movie involves an awful lot of extremely well-off characters but wrongly noting that the poorest person in the film drove a Porsche — I should have said the poorest male person not bearing a special invitation to the “Dinner for Winners” — I wondered how much our present economic morass was weighing on the minds of the creators.
“We definitely thought that it was opportune,” said writer Handelman, “to have them working at a hedge fund or a private equity [firm]”
“We actually talked to a number of people at hedge funds when we were writing the thing,” Guion added. “They were all extremely concerned that this would cast people in the financial sector in a negative light. That would be the end of it for them,” he said to some laughter.
Handelman chimed in, saying that would be doubly true if word got out that, “on top of everything else, [they] played games likes this.”
Then, I noted a scene in which Zach Galifianakis, as he’s practicing mind control over Carrel, briefly turns a bright beet red, returning to semi-normal right before our eyes. Was that as real as it looked?
“That was all Zach,” said Jay Roach. “That is just him losing himself in his belief in his ability to control somebody’s mind and putting every aspect of himself into it. The funny thing about that is when we sent it to the lab, and I just got involved in the color timing, they tried to time it out, they thought it was a mistake. So, I got it back and I said ‘What happened?’ they said, ‘We wanted it to match.’ I said, ‘No, no, no, that was real.’ There’s no digital effect. That is all just the very blood of Zach Galifianakis rushing to his face to show itself.”
The next questioner asked Steve Carell whether he got any “secret pleasure” from working with the stuffed mice and the amazing and rather beautiful “mousterpieces” created by his character (actually, veteran animators and artists, the Chiodo Brothers) which may be the single best aspect of “Dinner for Schmucks.”
“Not so secret. I was astounded by the detail in those mice dioramas,” Carell said. “The man hours [and] the attention to detail and the commitment to those dioramas, they were astounding. I think honestly things like that really help you with a character. Because, to sit in a room with all of those and look at how meticulously they’ve been put together really informs the characters a lot. It really tells you a lot about who this guy is …I was very thankful and grateful to [the Chiodos] for how exquisite those dioramas were.”
Did he ever find himself playing with them or dressing them in his spare time?
“I’d rather not go into the details of that,” Carrell said. “I do hope, at some point, to own one for my house. I don’t know whether it’s the Ben Franklin or the Evel Knievel but I would love to have a mouse diorama in my own home to display proudly.”
Then another questioner asked Paul Rudd about a scene requiring him to literally speak into actress Lucy Punch’s crotch, playing an inordinately determined past “Fatal Attraction”-style hook-up for his character.
“Into a cell phone? Speaking into a woman’s crotch? You’re asking me?” queried a concerned looking Rudd.
“She’s trying to get the first line of her story,” Carell sagely commented. “I didn’t go for the bait with dressing the mice. ”
Getting a bit more sincere, Rudd said “I was very nervous and uncomfortable… I actually turned the color of Zach Galifianakis.”
Shifting gears, what did the cast think of “The Dinner Game” as it compared to “Dinner for Schmucks”?
“Really, I approached this the same way I approached ‘The Office,” said Steve Carell. “I still haven’t seen the original ‘Office’ because I didn’t want to do an impersonation of Ricky Gervais. I still haven’t seen the French film because I didn’t want to have that inform what I was going to do with this one. I tried to look at it as a blank slate. I’d like to see it now that the work is done. I’ve heard only great things.”
“To prepare for this,” said Paul Rudd, “I watched the British ‘Office.'”
Then came the obligatory praise for the director who, as per Paul Rudd, really does come across like “a self-effacing guy” despite being married for quite some time now to Susanna Hoffs of the Bangles. “My wife’s really into Paul,” Roach added.
Seeing as “Dinner for Schmucks” is a remake, someone wondered how would Roach and company feel about having one of their movies remade?
“I would love to see a remake of ‘Austin Powers.’ Especially in a completely different culture. The Brazilian version of ‘Austin Powers’ or the Ukrainian version would be [great]. I would be so flattered if someone thought to do that.”
“I’ve had some I’d like to remake” said Bruce Greenwood, the highly experienced actor whose diverse credits include 1986’s “The Malibu Bikini Shop.”
Did anyone in the cast have the kind of unusual or extraordinary hidden talents that might get them invited to the Dinners for Winners.? Carell admitting to playing two very “unsexy” instruments — the baritone horn, a sort of “mini-tuba,” and the fife. Bruce Greenwood discussed his bowl-making hobby, which he said was not a joke, and Ron Livingston admitted to juggling “a little.” Paul Rudd demonstrated that he can do a strange but hard to describe thing with his tongue.
Then Jay Roach was asked about, wait for it, the state of comedy today and how it’s changed, and whether he felt a need for his comedies to have “morals.”
“I don’t know how much comedy’s changed. I grew up watching Woody Allen films. ‘Annie Hall’ sort of convinced me to go to film school. I remember how that film… how funny it was, obviously, but how it made comedy as a way of coping with heartache,” Roach said.
“I think that’s what attracted me to this story. It’s about a character who has coped with his own pain and separation from his wife, in a very unusual way, through his mice [dioramas]… It wasn’t so much meant to be a film with a moral as much as a film where you enjoyed watching how one person’s approach to life, which might seem off-center, odd, or idiotic, could actually inspire another person to get more in touch with their better selves. But [that’s] mostly just because the characters were struggling to find a way to be, in a funny way.”