Dead Mice And Schmucks

Tom Shone at Slate:

Amid all the septic-tank gags, Meet the Parents had one standout scene—at De Niro’s dinner table, where a nervous Ben Stiller delivers an excruciating soliloquy about cat-milking. It’s one of the age-old tenets of farce—goofy stuff, said at the dinner table, sounds twice as goofy—but director Jay Roach was obviously so enamored of his discovery that he has sought to turn it into an entire movie. In Dinner for Schmucks (Paramount), a group of L.A. financiers meet regularly for dinner, each bringing along an idiot for everyone’s amusement. The one with the best idiot wins.

The idea is lifted from the 1998 French film, Le Diner des Cons, directed by Francis Veber, in which a snobbish publisher befriended a fool for the purposes of civilized mockery, only to see the fool visit chaos upon every corner of his life. It wasn’t Feydeau, but it delivered a neat kick to the shins of Parisian literary snobs—boo hiss. I’m not sure what you get from shifting the whole thing to the world of Los Angeles private equity, not a field that is world famous for its air of intellectual brinkmanship; or from giving the lead role to Paul Rudd, who happens to be one of the most affable, easy-going invertebrates on the planet.

“That’s messed up,” he protests when he first hears about the scheme—and just in case we miss his principles the first time, here they are again: “That’s messed up” says his girlfriend Julie, who is played by French-born actress Stephanie Szostack, presumably on the principle that if you are to ransack a country’s most venerable farceur traditions you may as well grab their most winsome, button-nosed actresses while you’re at it.

Carl Kozlowski at Big Hollywood:

But just as he asks his secretary to tell Lance that he can’t attend the meal, Barry steps in front of his car and the two literally meet by accident. Tim pretends to be friendly to Barry, and Barry believes he’s made his first friend in years.

Since Barry’s biggest skill is his ability to make artistic “mousterpieces” – dioramas featuring dead mice that he taxidermies, clothes and places into settings based on famous paintings, including Leonardo di Vinci’s “The Last Supper” – he just might win, if he can beat his worst rival: his own boss at the IRS (Zach Galifianakis in a ridiculously funny performance), who has tormented Barry for years with his alleged ability to control Barry’s mind.

Now that I’ve lavished praise upon Carell, Galifianakis and Greenwood, and spelled out the film’s utterly bizarre premise, one might wonder, “So what’s the problem?” The film’s pacing is off in some places, a fact that’s surprising given the fact that director Jay Roach was at the helm of five of the biggest screwball-comedy hits of the past 30 years with the “Austin Powers” trilogy and the first two “Meet the Parents” films.

The film lumbers at points in its first half-hour, and occasionally feels like it’s trying way too hard with the wacky antics at other points in the rest of the film. Yet enough moments work – including a freakishly funny subplot involving a stalker (Lucy Punch) of Tim’s – that you likely won’t be able to keep from laughing loudly and thinking back on the film as being better than the sum of its parts.

“Schmucks” is surprisingly free of profanity (or at least nearly enough so that I didn’t notice any), but in keeping with Roach’s other films, there are some outrageously risque sequences. While there’s nothing graphic in the visuals, some of the verbal jokes’ topics carry things pretty far out, yet for adults and teenagers, these situations are also absurd they’re nearly impossible to take serious offense at and the film’s overall sweetness and humanity still rules the day.

And thanks to an absolutely beautiful use of wistful pop classics like The Beatles’ “Fool on the Hill,” it is also the rare broad comedy film that manages to get its emotional moments right as well. You’ll be glad you RSVP’d to this film, rather than feeling like a schmuck for paying to see it.

Stephanie Zacharek at Movieline:

It’s possible Roach — whose credits include Meet the Parents and Meet the Fockers, as well as the Austin Powers movies — was simply trying to set up the movie as a vast party by itself, one whose conviviality would enwrap the audience, too. And there are plenty of gags that almost work: Zach Galifianakis shows up as a scary IRS agent who intimidates his poor co-worker Barry with his amazing “mind control” skills, which essentially amount to a psychotic stare. The funniest part of Galifianakis’ schtick, though, involves an article of clothing that those of you born after 1975 may never even have seen before. And Carell, whom I consider an off-and-on genius (as long as you don’t make me watch Evan Almighty or Dan in Real Life again), has some terrific, throwaway moments, as when he slumps into a chair, loosens his shirt, and yanks off his necktie — which is a clip-on. The gag itself is pedestrian; Carell’s off-the-beat timing, and the forehead-smacking, “How did I not see that coming?” element of surprise, are what make it work.

But before long Carell’s character, perpetually squirrelly-eyed and wearing a bland, rabbity smile, becomes a chore to watch. Even Rudd, who’s both a marvelous straight man and a stealthy funny guy, recoils from him a little bit too believably. Because most contemporary mainstream comedies, unfortunately, have to have some deeper meaning, there is a moral to Dinner for Schmucks: Be nice to squares. And that moral would be acceptable, if only the movie didn’t bore us so interminably along the way. It takes forever to get to the climactic dinner scene, and even then, the schmucky guests we’ve been waiting to see offer nothing but disappointment: There’s a psychic who communicates with dead pets (Octavia Spencer), a blind fencer (Chris O’Dowd), a guy with a hungry pet vulture (Patrick Fischler). Each runs through his or her act as if trying out for the Gong Show.

The few moments of relief in Dinner for Schmucks come from some of the supporting performers, most notably the British actors David Walliams and Lucy Davenport as a pair of humorless Swiss kajillionaires. (Just looking at Davenport, with her robotic Ultra-Brite smile and electronic blue Village of the Damned eyes, made me laugh.) Jemaine Clement, of Flight of the Conchords, also shows up as a self-important, sex-obsessed artist, and sometimes he’s funny-sexy, in a Cro-Magnon way. But the best things in Dinner for Schmucks by far are the mice, nattily dressed stuffed creatures who inhabit their tiny, meticulously detailed worlds with more life and spirit than their human counterparts do. In one of these tableaus, our little rodent friends gather ‘round one side of a long, rectangular table to partake of the Last Supper. Now that’s what I call a party.

Cole Abaius at Film School Rejects:

Barry is a whirlwind of life change – destroying property, relationships, tax statuses – but he comes off like the puppy who looks up at you with giant eyes after peeing all over your favorite shirt. Unfortunately, Paul Rudd doesn’t come off like much of anything except a stock character. He’s Misguided Hero #4 Who Has To Learn to Be Himself and Not Mock the Guy Who Makes Dead Mouse Dolls.

Their relationship leads to the true focal point of the movie – a dinner party where the stakes are equally high for Tim to win the multi-million dollar client, for Barry to stand up to his bullying co-worker Therman (Zach Galifianakis), and for the weirdo with the female dummy to creep everyone out. The movie does its math correctly, and the destructive power of one idiot is amplified by seven.

There are some truly disturbing, shockingly funny moments (particularly when Barry hands a note written on a napkin to a wealthy possible investor), and they are welcomed after a fairly average start. The laughs are there, but the film is not much more than what it needs to be – a clever distraction that’s as digestible as the popcorn it comes with.

The Upside: Steve Carell doing his best Harold Lloyd, Paul Rudd doing his best Paul Rudd, and a few great comedic set ups that are milked for every laugh out there.

The Downside: A fairly average story, too much downtime between the funny stuff, and an opening that looks like it came from a robot programmed to write modern comedies.

On the Side: Were you aware that this film is a remake of a French film that Rob Hunter really enjoyed despite having to read the entire movie? It’s true!

John Farr at Huffington Post:

Even in the midst of decent, more than respectable reviews, why am I not more excited to see the new Dinner For Schmucks?

Here’s why: in my experience, American remakes of foreign hits are most often inferior. Most anyone fortunate enough to have seen Francis Veber’s original Diner de Cons (The Dinner Game) from 1998 knows that to improve upon it would be virtually impossible — or at least, I hope they do.

This delightful, intelligent farce about a mean-spirited game in which handsome, well-heeled gentlemen bring the biggest nerds they can find to a dinner, and how one smug player has the tables turned on him by a most memorable nerd well before they even get to the dinner, stands out as one movie with little need of a remake.

But since there’s nothing original out there anyone wants to touch, of course mainstream Hollywood just has to try.

For those of you who don’t know it, over the past thirty-plus years Veber has been perhaps the most gifted and prolific director of film comedies in France, and time and again, Hollywood has tried to recreate his magic via flat re-makes drained completely of the Gallic charm that animates the originals.

Raise your hands: has anyone recently re-visited The Toy (1982) with Jackie Gleason and Richard Pryor, or The Man With One Red Shoe (1985), starring Tom Hanks? I didn’t think so. Both were inspired by successful Veber outings in France starring the inimitable Pierre Richard.

Though some will undoubtedly differ with me on this, even Mike Nichols’s The Birdcage (1996), by far the most successful Veber adaptation this side of the pond, pales next to its predecessor, La Cage Aux Folles (1978).

You’d think that Hollywood might give up on Veber remakes, but no. They believe that by manipulating a proven formula, usually making it more obvious to attract a broader audience, and then pushing it out to the world via their enormous marketing and distribution machine, they will turn a handsome profit in the end. And — maddeningly — most of the time they are right.

I read all the reviews I could find for Schmucks, and overall I concede they were mostly positive, though somewhat qualified. However, it’s pretty evident Schmucks is no comedic masterpiece, which i submit the original is (or if not, damn close). In the New York Times, A.O. Scott termed it “less a full-scale comic feast than a buffet of amusing snacks,” just the sort of faint praise that puts me on my guard.

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