Dinner With Yucks
by M. Faust
Dinner for Schmucks director Jay Roach on the makings of a good comedy and antiquated Yiddish profanity.
It’s a comic concept so cruel that only the French could have come up with it: a rich businessman holds a party once a month at which his friends compete to see who can bring the most entertaining idiot as a guest.
You may remember that as the plot of Francis Veber’s Le Dîner de Cons, one of the most popular French comedies of the 1990s when it played in the US as The Dinner Game. After being in various stages of development for most of the past decade, an American remake opens this week, with the new title Dinner for Schmucks. Steve Carrell stars as an IRS desk jockey devoted to making dioramas featuring embalmed mice. Paul Rudd is an ambitious executive charged with finding someone to bring to his boss’s party.
If you’re a Yiddish speaker and over the age of 70, the title may shock you: “schmuck” was originally a rude term for “penis,” in the way that we might say “Don’t be a dick.”
“It was called that when the script was first sent to me,” says director Jay Roach at a Beverly Hills press conference.
Clearly he had never anticipated this being a problem. “For me it’s the ideal word for what the movie is about. It has several meanings. ‘Don’t be a schmuck’ means don’t be a jerk, which is what Paul Rudd’s character is going through, and ‘Don’t be an idiot,’ which seems to apply to Steve Carrell‘s character. Plus it’s a funny word to say.”
(Co-star Ron Livingston chimes in, “Dinner for Weiners didn’t test well.”)
The French film, which started as a play and took place mostly in one apartment, was a farce in which the idiot, innocently trying to be helpful, ruins the callous businessman’s entire life in the course of a single evening. The remake softens the story by making Rudd an intermediary character, an essentially decent guy pushed into doing a mean thing for the sake of his career.
Roach, best known as the director of the Austin Powers movies, counts himself a fan of Veber. “He’s the Mike Nichols of France. He’s written so many great farces, La Cage aux Folles, The Valet, all these incredible films. I feel lucky to be able to get to work on a story of his.
“Dîner de Cons was amazing. I didn’t dare try to emulate what he did. But we thought we could do something a little different with the main concept. So we added a third act in which they actually go to the dinner. The original teased about that but didn’t go there, which was kind of cool and very French not to have a third act. I thought that we could riff off of that and take it a little further.”
That addition also allowed Dinner for Schmucks to add a number of new characters. Carrell and Rudd are both funny performers, but like all comedians trained in improvisation they work best with a strong ensemble. Roach made the best of a script that offered a broad range of peculiar characters by casting actors skilled in improv.
Zach Galifianakis steals the show as Carrell’s IRS boss who believes that he can control other people with his brain. In the finale he works so hard at this that his head turns bright red from the strain, in what looks like a special effects shot. It’s not, says Roach.
“That was all Zach—that is just him losing himself in his belief in his ability to control people’s minds and putting everything he has into it. When we sent the film to the lab and I got involved in the color timing, they tried to fix it—they thought it was a [lighting] mistake. There’s no visual effect—that’s all the blood of Zach Galifanakis.”
Other parts are cast with actors from British sketch comedy shows like “Little Britain,” “The IT Crowd” and “Flight of the Conchords.”
“I didn’t think about the nationalities,” Roach says. “When you’re casting you just try to find the funniest people you can. So it wasn’t just a matter of going over the pond.
“We wanted every character to grow within the text [of the script]. Chris O’Dowd really turned the blind swordsman into something it might not have been without him. Lucy Punch [as
Rudd’s deranged ex-girlfriend] can pull off craziness and dangerousness and still you can’t stop looking at her. Dave Walliams [who plays a creepily Aryan billionaire] came in and suggested some very off center choices, like he and his wife wearing matching white outfits and having extra blue eyes. All of those choices they all made themselves, little things like that that add the specificity that those great English comedians are excellent at.”
Dinner For Schmucks may be a model of current American comedy, loosely structured to value performance over script, but Roach thinks the essentials haven’t changed. “I grew up on watching Woody Allen films—Annie Hall convinced me to go to film school. That film was funny, obviously, but it used comedy as a way of coping with heartache and heartbreak. I think that’s what attracted me to this story; it’s about a character [Carrell] who has coped with his own pain in a very unusual way, with his mice. And he’s also such a try-er and optimistic person that his way of coping can become a contagious idea.
“It wasn’t so much meant to be a film with a moral, but a film where you enjoy watching how one person’s approach to life might seem off center, odd, or idiotic but can inspire another person to get more in touch with their better self. But mostly just because the characters were struggling to find a way be themselves, and I think that’s always been the essence of the best stories, funny or dramatic.”
Watch the trailer for Dinner For Schmucks
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