Dinner For Schmucks

Be nice to your goats

It becomes evident within the first twenty minutes of Dinner For Schmucks that that “schmucks” in question are the very people attending the dinner.  At the onset, the movie reminded me of a film I wrote and worked on – Slices – which featured characters meeting when the protagonist (straight man) hits the secondary main character (funny man) with a car, following which he gives him a ride, and the adventure begins.  I was flabbergasted until I remembered that when I was writing Slices in 2007, I was creating a project in the vein of conventional double-act comedy.  After that, I was able to enjoy myself.

The film features Steve Carell as the funny man and Paul Rudd as the straight man.  Rudd’s character, Tim Conrad, is offered a high-paying position at the company he works at (by the time the film is halfway done, you won’t remember what the company is or what they do or what they’re called; you’ll just remember that they’re a classic group of misogynistic suit-wearing pricks with a ton of money).  As part of the company’s tradition, Tim is required to attend a company dinner and bring along an “idiot” to make fun of.  Why this would be funny or plausible in real life without the “idiots” realizing what was going on is beyond me, but it makes for an interesting comedic premise, to be sure.

Of course, Tim decides to bring Barry Speck (Carell), a taxidermist who collects dead mice and creates colorful dioramas with the corpses.  After a fight with his girlfriend Julie (Stephanie Sztostak), Tim is left with Barry, who mistakes which night the dinner is.  Together they adventure through L.A. in hopes of bringing Julie back, running into a nice cast of bizarre characters including Tim’s insane ex, Darla (Lucy Punch); Barry’s mind-controlling IRS boss, Therman (Zack Galifianakis), and eccentric artist Kieran Vollard (Jemaine Clement), with whom Julie is thought to be cheating on Tim.  Clement brings yet another quirky and well-acted performance to a comedy film, all but stealing the show again in this one.  As Vollard tells us, “There are only two things in this world: wonderful, visceral, sexy sex; and death.  Horrible, boring death.”

The film also features Bruce Greenwood, Ron Livingston and David Walliams in small roles, as well as Larry Wilmore, The Daily Show With John Stewart‘s “senior black correspondent,” and Kristen Shaal (also of Flight of the Conchords and The Daily Show).   It seems as though Stewart’s show is now a gateway into comedy films and larger comedy careers in general, as exemplified by Carell, Stephen Colbert, Ed Helms, Mo Rocca, Rob Riggle and Rob Corddry.

The performances and direction fit the bill.  It’s a well-cast film with an ear for comedy, though it doesn’t have as many laugh-out-loud moments as the recent Date Night or Get Him to the Greek.  The film perhaps makes up for it with some truly touching moments, including a scene where we find out exactly what some of Barry’s weirdest dioramas are really referring to.  The dinner itself, the film’s centerpiece, has a lot to live up to, and while it’s not chock-full of gut-busting one-liners, it’s got enough color and bon-mot-flinging to satisfy.  It even features appearances by Patrick Fischler of ABC’s Lost and Jeff Dunham, who does his annoying ventriloquism thing.

Despite not containing one occasion of the word “schmucks,” the film is a charmer with some real heart, not to mention Steve Carell on his comedy A-game.  Go see it, for schmuck’s sake.

Dinner For Schmucks (2010); written by David Guion; directed by Jay Roach; starring Steve Carell, Paul Rudd, and Jemaine Clement.

Gentlemen Broncos

Cyclops there; cyclops there

Let me begin with a suggestion: someone should start a running tally of films that end with Kansas’ “Wayward Son” playing over the credits.  Put that on my wish list.

Gentlemen Broncos features an outstanding performance from Jemaine Clement of the popular New Zealand duo Flight of the Conchords.  He stuffs away most of his Kiwi accent and replaces it with pure arrogance.  The story follows Benjamin Purvis (Michael Angarano) and his quest to be a popular science fiction author.  If you can get past the glaring inaccuracies as far as publishing, the writing process, and the “fortune” that comes from being a fiction writer, it’s an enjoyable film.

Opening with “The Year 2525” by Zager and Evans, the film promises a strange adventure.  In this respect, it delivers.  The narrative toggles between the real-life of Benjamin, who attends a sci-fi writer’s camp led by his hero, famous author Ronald Chevalier (Clement), and the story of his fictional protagonist, Bronco (Sam Rockwell), who changes appearances based upon whose version of the story is being imagined.  Chevalier’s new novel is apparently so awful that his publisher wants nothing to do with it, so he steals the best piece of student work, which happens to be Benjamin’s.  The interactions between Angarano and Clement are funny, well-acted and in some cases truly clever.

There are a few needless sideplots, including 1) a friend of Benjamin’s attempting to make his story into a zero-budget indie film.  The friend claims to have made eighty-three motion pictures and is granted a television interview in which he talks about the adaptation of Benjamin’s novel.  Why does this guy have money if his films are so obviously horrendous?  How did he get the TV interview?  Why would anyone care?  2) A misguided pseudo-romance between Benjamin and Tabatha (Halley Feiffer), which is foreshadowed from the second or third scene of the film but never addressed until 3/4 of the way through.  3) The exploits of Benjamin’s deranged mother (Jennifer Coolidge), who designs horrid dresses and makes things out of popcorn.  Edgar Oliver gets shot in the chest with darts at some point, but I’m not sure why.

Additionally, the gross-out jokes often distract from some of the very witty and creditable humor.  I counted three occasions of vomit and three occasions of feces, as well as countless testicle jokes.

I was, admittedly, turned off by the complete and utter victory of Benjamin at the end.  Quite often, popular authors who plagiarize do not have their careers abruptly diffused and disappear from public knowledge altogether (David Shields, James Frey, that Russian girl, etc), nor would the kid whose work was plagiarized actually have his book published in place of the bogus one by the already-famous author.  Nor, I hasten to add, would it sell, and if it did, he’d certainly not make enough money to a) be happy/secure, and b) start up a business for his mother.  Again, this is a world of fiction, and maybe I’m trapped in the reality of the writer, but I would have preferred Benjamin’s family to remain destitute while learning things about themselves and changing as people, while the villain wins money but lives on with the knowledge that he stole his idea from some poor kid.

All in all, this is an enjoyable and bizarre ride.  The filmmakers were wise to base the story around genre-fiction and use actual passages from the works very sparsely (though when passages appear, they consist of some of the most cringe-worthy, unpublishable writing you’ve ever heard.  Whether this is purposeful is never truly clear in the film).  It does, however, capture the eternal arrogance and idiocy of pulp sci-fi writers.  The highlights include Jemaine’s performance, the music, and the very weird settings, which quite often make use of stop-motion animation and puppets as opposed to obnoxious CG.  If you’re a writer, it’s worth a rental, and it far surpasses the annoying Napoleon Dynamite.

Note: I had this film on Netflix and misplaced it, searching for two months before discovering the sleeve behind the living-room baseboard heater.  How this happened remains a mystery.

Gentlemen Broncos (2009); written and directed by Jared and Jerusha Hess; starring Jemaine Clement, Michael Angarano and Sam Rockwell.