It's telling of Jay Roach's quality as a director that his filmography consists of movies that are fitfully entertaining but could have been something much more. And they usually spawn sequels based on diminishing returns -- Austin Powers and Meet the Parents.
He casts comedic powerhouses in film franchises that take an obvious -- and singular -- joke and stretch it out to the breaking point for one film, much less three (don't forget we have Little Fockers and Austin Powers 4 in our future).
Roach is the two percent milk of directors, and Dinner for Schmucks is a really good example of how punches get pulled on a creative level where he's concerned. Just compare it to the two other films where the incomparable pair of Paul Rudd and Steve Carell just kill, amongst an ensemble cast, Anchorman and The 40-Year-Old Virgin.
Yeah, those films dwell in that Judd Apatow (and Adam McKay) Universe, and neither Rudd nor Carell is carrying the whole of either flick. But the way both of those directors utilized the talents of their ensembles speaks volumes to Roach's abilities as a comedy director. He doesn't take chances. He dwells in a PG-13 galaxy and finds ways to be distasteful without ever being really transgressive. He accentuates the obviousness of his wacky situations, while trying to avoid cruelty for the sake of not crossing the line.
That makes Dinner for Schmucks the darkly comedic equivalent of light beer -- watered down but satiating if you're thirsty enough.
Tim (Paul Rudd) is an upwardly mobile executive, elbowing his way to a promotion and a nicer office. His investment firm is trying to reel in a German tycoon, Müeller (David Williams), and the millions his company's portfolio would bring.
Tim's boss, Lance Fender (Bruce Greenwood), wants him to seal the deal by participating in a "dinner for winners" that he and the other executives throw, though "winners" is really just a euphemism for "morons." The idea: Whoever brings the biggest dolt for the others to mock wins bragging rights, while the unwitting idiot gets a trophy for being "No. 1."
When Tim accidentally hits taxidermy-obsessed, IRS employee Barry (Steve Carell) with his car, it becomes quickly apparent that he has met his contestant.
What follows is a sitcom-level comedy of errors as Barry becomes an unintentional whirlwind of destruction in Tim's life. Tim's probable fiancée, Julie (Stephanie Szostak) becomes convinced he's cheating on her after Barry foolishly answers a chat from a psychotic one-night stand from Tim's past and his efforts to rectify the situation only make things predictably and inexorably worse.
Tim is stuck with Barry as he tries to mend the fence with his girl who has seemingly run to the arms of her artist client Kieran (Jermaine Clement, practically stealing the film), a hyper-sexual, ego-maniac with a ... "back-to-nature" ethos to his lovemaking.
But as frustratingly clueless as Barry is, Tim begins to warm to him, becoming conflicted when he realizes that exploiting Barry's childlike sweetness means he's probably a pretty horrible human being.
Dinner for Schmucks only kind of works though, and that has almost everything to do with the cast. There's no way you are going to put Paul Rudd and Steve Carell together and not get some laughs. Jay Roach might be somewhat of a hack, but it would take some true incompetence to screw up the kind of chemistry those two have together. Rudd is one of the best comedy straight men working today, and regardless of the scripts' quality, the guy can get laughs on pure timing.
So Roach, lacking any distinguishable style, just (perhaps wisely) points the camera at his talent and lets them go to work. The results are a mixed bag since the script (based on the Francis Veber play The Dinner Game) doesn't really push the envelope in terms of hilarity and dilutes its darkest possibilities with overtly manipulative sweetness -- as when it's revealed that Barry's dioramas of taxidermized mice are just a means for him to reconcile his ex-wife's infidelity with a co-worker (Zack Galifianakis).
Rudd is priceless. I can't say enough about the guy's timing and sensibilities. The chemistry he shares with Carell is plain and enough to keep the movie afloat, even when the predictabilities of the script bog down their momentum.
Galifianakis plays up his psychotic weirdo shtick, but he's been funnier elsewhere -- and I'm beginning to wonder if his unique comic sensibilities are getting overexposed. He's a smart comedian, but one who's best meted out deliberately lest coming in danger of diluting his quirky charm (see: Will Ferrell).
Jermaine Clement steals every scene he's in, which is saying a lot considering who he's stealing from. His narcissistic Kieran delivers the most consistent laughs, and I'd love it if the character got his own spin-off film, ala Russell Brand and Get Him to the Greek.
And then, there's Carell. The role of Barry is probably something he could do in his sleep, but he brings his doe-eyed, clueless grinning A-game to the proceedings, though, he's been funnier and fresher elsewhere.
It did get some chuckles out of me and a couple of slam dunk laughs -- Clement and Rudd excel there -- but considering the formidable comedic actors assembled here, it's something of a letdown. A more biting script that took more chances and amped up the darker aspects instead of pulling its punches would have been gold in the hands of these actors. As it is, it's more like pyrite.
No More Coco
Man, I don't like Coco Chanel. Credit where it's due, she had an interesting and influential life, and her adherence to her independence is admirable. She was also generous. But then Angelina Jolie is all those things, too. I'm sure Jennifer Aniston could give a damn.
Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky is the second film I've seen about Chanel in the past year, the previous being the sleep inducing Coco Before Chanel. While not rising to that film's levels of tedium -- there's too much music and sex for that -- Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky paints Chanel, again, as a coldly craven opportunist.
Opening in 1913, we find Chanel (Anna Mouglalis) at the opening night of a ballet version of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, which is received poorly by much of the boisterous audience. Not so with Chanel, who becomes immediately enamored of Stravinsky and his bombastic compositions.
Eight years later, she finally meets Stravinsky (the best name ever, Mads Mikkelsen) and invites him to stay -- along with his ill wife, Catherine (Elena Morozova) and five kids -- at a chateau outside of Paris, where he can concentrate on finishing his next masterpiece. Compared to the hovel they have been living in after their exile in the wake of the Russian Revolution, the offer seems like a miracle.
Of course, the tension builds when it becomes clear Chanel wants more than to just champion the arts, and she and Stravinsky begin a torrid, discretion-free affair.
It's a cruelty Dinner for Schmucks can only dream of. While the film itself is a slow, slow burn -- like Coco Before Chanel -- it does manage to accentuate the pain Stravinsky inflicts on his wife as she slowly feels her life and the love of her husband irrevocably slipping away.
Directed by Jan Kounen from a script adapted from the book Coco & Igor, the film rather nicely contrasts how their passions (mutual and otherwise) had an influence on each other's works, and it's unhurried pace lends a certain depth to the emotional arcs of the main characters.
And it is beautifully shot, whether the lovely chateau's idyllic surroundings or the artfully composed sex, cinematographer David Ungaro ensures Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky is always easy on the eyes. Long static takes and slow tracking shots let the whole thing breathe with a delicate atmosphere.
But that atmosphere is delicate in the way stars on a clear night are -- cold, distant and intangible. Stravinsky comes off as somewhat of a cad, while Chanel is an emotional leech. The film makes clear that they held each other in their hearts for years afterwards -- and more interesting years they were for both -- but that doesn't change the fact that neither of them are particularly likeable.
Mikkelsen is a fine performer, who plays reserved quite well, and if Stravinsky was this tightly wound in life then he might have been perfect casting. Mouglalis is similarly unflappable as Chanel, and she does a better job at breathing life into the role than Audrey Tautou did.
It must be said that the art and production design are rather stunning. The filmmakers had access to Chanel's archives and her original home, and the film drips with Chanel's aesthetic right down to the ornately eye-popping opening credit sequence. That adds to the sense of emotional distance that makes the film so attractive and yet so chillingly baroque.
While not a bad movie at all -- despite tapering to a limp ending from promising beginnings -- it's still more engaging than Coco Before Chanel. Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky's main flaw is that it's directed at people who probably like Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky.
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