Last Thursday night, while many of my peers were seeing "Inception" for the first time, I was sitting in a theater in Hollywood for an early screening of "Dinner For Schmucks," starring Steve Carell and Paul Rudd and directed by Jay Roach.
The following day, I spent 45 minutes on the phone talking to Roach about the movie, and I ran into Steve Carell on Saturday at the "Despicable Me" press day, where we also ended up talking about the film. Even though I'll have the full Roach interview up next week (and it's a pretty great one), I wanted to run some first impressions of the movie and my conversations with these guys.
Right from the start of the movie, a gorgeous credit sequence set to "Fool On The Hill," there's real control in the way Roach tells the story and lets you know exactly where your sympathies should lie. Carell plays one of the most outrageous characters of his career, Barry, who spends his free time creating elaborate dioramas with taxidermed mice, and the opening credits are all done over a huge inter-related scene, a "Sunday in the park dream date," that immediately tells you just how sweet Barry is, despite seeming completely bent. It gives you permission to laugh at Barry, because you know he's a good guy underneath, so it's not mean-spirited at all. That's key to being able to enjoy the ride in the movie, and Roach gets it exactly right.
I've seen both of the trailers for "Schmucks," and honestly, I don't think either one really nails down the movie. It's a really strong character comedy that is driven by the incredible chemistry between Carell and Rudd, who both do excellent work in the movie. I told Roach how his film surprised me exactly because it's not what the trailers suggest it might be. The first doesn't work at all...
... but the second at least suggests the mania of the film...
... without giving away exactly how it all works. The second one's pretty good, considering what a hard sell the film is. Once I got on the phone with Roach, we talked about Francis Veber, the French filmmaker whose work inspired this film, and just being able to chat about comedy theory and comedy history with Roach is exactly what I enjoy about this job. I have boundless respect for his "Austin Powers" trilogy, and "Meet The Parents" is one of those ridiculous mainstream comedy machines that worked so well you have to respect it. For Roach to tackle one of the Veber remakes (and there have been many) is one of those benchmarks for a comedy filmmaker, and talking to him about that was illuminating.
We spent a good deal of time talking about the film's supporting cast, because it's pretty diverse and interesting, and everyone gets their turn to show off. We talked about Jemaine Clement from "Flight Of The Conchords," Zach Galafianakis, the hilariously bizarre Lucy Punch, the awesome David Walliams, and the oily charms of Ron Livingston. It was a chance to really dig into what it is that Roach responds to in a comic performer, and since so much of the job of directing a comedy is simply being the barometer of whether or not you laugh, it's great to see what it is that Roach considers funny.
We talked a bit about Blake Edwards, as there's a real strong "Party" vibe to this movie. Barry is the same sort of tornado of human destruction that Clouseau could be in the "Pink Panther" movies, and as we talked about Edwards, who may have been the best slapstick director of all time (that's my opinion, anyway), Roach told me about his attempts to remake "The Party." It's no surprise at all to hear that Roach adores Edwards. They have very similiar sensibilities, and there's a whole lot of "Pink Panther" in the DNA of the "Austin Powers" series. He talked about how he blended all the various comic styles of the performers in a cohesive whole, since it's not often you have the lead from "The IT Crowd" at a table with ventriloquist Jeff Dunham and a vomiting vulture, and he told a good story about the "psychic duel" you see in the second trailer, which evolved completely once they got to the set.
There's a lot to like in the film. The female lead, Paul Rudd's romantic interest, is the preposterously cute Stephanie Szostak. There will be crushes. Oh, yes, there will. She's got a French accent that pops in and out, and she's got a cute little lisp, and she's so sweet... she's like an animated Disney bunny. You figure if her character likes Tim (Rudd's character), then he must be a decent guy on some level. She anchors him so that he can be a real jerk at times in the film, with the audience sure that he'll redeem himself.
That seems to be a priority to Roach. He spends a good deal of energy at the start of the film making sure you're on the side of both Barry and Tim, and then he unleashes them in a surprisingly weird and dark ride, and it's knowing where the film began that makes all of the truly crazy stuff seem okay. It's hard to do something this outrageous while really earning the emotional payoffs that this film does, and that's what distinguishes it.
Carell is great in the film. Great. I like this kind of character, this force of nature who just sort of happens to the world around them. He is so broad from the moment he appears, but just when it looks like he's going too broad, he does something that grounds it and makes it totally real and he breaks your heart. Because his sadness is so very very sad. I am jaw-on-the-floor amazed by moments like a frank conversation about how his wife's clitoris got lost. It's gross, it's outrageous, and yet Steve makes it this confessional sad little moment that gives you permission to laugh at the situation, not at him. It's a great balancing act.
Lucy Punch is a circus freak, and I mean that with the utmost respect. I am impressed and a-feared. Jemaine has always been a circus freak. Again... respect. Zach. Freak. Awesome. They're all really big in the movie, and every big swing they take, they connect. It's impressive. Perfect use of supporting performances. They never overpower things, but they are used to punctuate already good sequences. I love Bruce Greenwood anyway. You can't really go wrong with him, and Jay gets just the right smarm out of him to earn that final post-credits mouse. Ron Livingston and Larry Wilmore are very good, and if anything, I'd say you can always use more Larry. For some reason, he makes me laugh in this in every single reaction shot. He just looks like he's on a roller coaster. He's having so much fun.
The dinner is very, very funny and well-orchestrated, and it builds to the exact right conclusion. There is no dinner in the original film, which was called "The Dinner Game" when it was released here. It's all preamble, and this film is structured similarly. I think you have to have it in the American version of the film, though. You can't dodge the bullet and still call the movie "Dinner For Schmucks," even if that would be kind of hilarious. I think every single "Winner" contributes something to the proceedings, and the mayhem in general, from the moment Barry is introduced, reminded me at times of the effortless way that Blake Edwards would stage mayhem in his best films.
I like Roach's pop sensibility. I always have. I think the way he captured the "Flynt" version of the '60s in the first "Austin" was amazing, and I remember being at that first test screening where it didn't go so great in the theater. I was with a small group of friends, and we were rolling. Those were our favorite films he was riffing on, one of our favorite genres, and he got all the details right. It was the little stuff, the grace notes... that's what made me like Jay Roach. He seems to be good at giving actors room to do really strong work, but for me, it's the slightly heightened pop candy feel to his movies that makes him distinct. He's got a touch for it. And "Dinner For Schmucks" is a really pretty film, even as it makes jokes about the weirdest, dumbest, most preposterous things.
The conversation I had with Carell was supposed to be about "Despicable Me," but we couldn't help it, and the conversation kept drifting back to "Schmucks." It's not one of those films where there's one big thing that made me laugh, but instead, there are dozens of lines that I keep thinking back to, and talking to Carell and Roach, I kept laughing as I remembered some other joke. I think both Carell and Roach were still nervous about how the film's going to hit audiences because they know it's a tough thing to sum up in 30 seconds. Most of the best moments are contextual humor, things that really only work when you see what builds up to them.
"Dinner For Schmucks" opens on July 30. We'll see what happens then. For now, though, count me an early fan, and before the film opens, I'll have the full 45 minute interview with Roach. You can look for that Carell interview here this week as part of my "Depicable Me" coverage.
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