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Knight at the Movies: Dinner for Schmucks; film notes
by Richard Knight, Jr.
2010-07-28

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Dinner for Schmucks—the new comedy from Austin Powers film series director Jay Roach which stars Steve Carell and Paul Rudd—has, hands down, the year's most hilarious opening-credit sequence. To the tune of the aptly chosen "Fool on the Hill" by the Beatles, we see the hands of Carell lovingly work on what surely must be his masterpiece—a diorama of a serene, bucolic summer countryside populated entirely by stuffed mice dressed in exactingly detailed clothes and sporting tiny eyeglasses, reading newspapers, spinning on a Ferris wheel, etc.

This insane attention to detail immediately screams "Nerd!" and the audience is prepped for an insightful comedy of manners. Though the movie, a remake of a French farce, doesn't quite reach the heights of the screwball comedy its characters and situations would suggest, it has its laugh-out-loud moments. Each time the whisper-thin set-up threatens to sag, a sequence comes along that kicks the movie back into high gear. And a phalanx of supporting experts in portraying the zany, cartoonish characters—Zach Galifianakis, Jermaine Clement, Little Britain's queer friendly David Walliams, Kirsten Schaal and Lucy Punch—help enormously.

Carell and Rudd are both cast as stock characters who audiences love for being, respectively, the comedic nerd and sweet, charming nerd. Rudd plays a corporate nebbish who wants the office and promotion dangled in front of him by Bruce Greenwood, his boss—so badly that he's willing to go along with the boss and his toadies when they invite him to their annual dinner for schmucks; at this event, each of the execs brings along the person he or she hopes will be anointed the biggest fool. Rudd is even told, "No mimes." Rudd knows it's morally reprehensible but even when his comely girlfriend, who reps a crazy but big-time artist urges him to drop out of the competition, Rudd can't do it.

That's because he's found Carell—an IRS agent with reddish hair and buck teeth—who spends all his time picking up dead mice on the street and using them in his dioramas. Carell plays such a goof; he's such a bland nerd that his computer password is "password" but it turns out, of course, that he has heart that shines through his dimwitted noggin. The relationship between the two recalls a spate of other pictures with a similar trajectory—The Cable Guy; Planes, Trains & Automobiles, etc.—and though nothing in the material offers either Carell or Rudd a chance to do anything particularly new or inventive, they are a pleasure to watch.

In the way that Madeline Kahn, Mabel Albertson and Kenneth Mars are the engines that drive the outsized laughs in What's Up Doc?, again it's that raft of supporting caricatures ( in all fairness, they really don't play characters ) who give Dinner for Schmucks its screwball zaniness. It's Walliams as a Swiss biz whiz ( though he's underused ) , Punch as a sex-starved stalker, Clement as the sexually free "conceptual artist," Schaal in the Eve Arden/Joan Cusack secretary role and, especially, Galifianakis as Carell's boss—the IRS agent who purports to have the power of mind control—that give this movie its zest.

The dinner at which the execs showcase their fools—which includes a contest of wills between Carell and Galifianakis—is the expected highlight of the movie, although nothing in the film has quite the blissful stupidity of Anchorman, Blades of Glory or a host of classic screwball comedies that the picture calls to mind. ( With a gender change and a few more plot twists, this could almost be a descendent of Bringing Up Baby. ) Wisely, Roach brings back "Fool on the Hill" and more of those dioramas for a voice over coda by Carell that neatly bookends the movie. If only what occurs in between had lived up to the promise of these credit sequences screwball Heaven might have been achieved. Not quite the four star comedic meal it promises at the outset, Dinner for Schmucks makes for a tasty repast, nonetheless.

Film notes:

—Cinema Lesbiana, the long-running lesbian centric film series curated by Tracy Curran—returns, this time with screenings at the Center on Halsted's Hoover-Leppen Theater, 3656 N. Halsted, beginning with the 1931 classic Mädchen in Uniform. This 1931 German film from director Leontine Sagan, starring Hertha Thiele and Dorothea Wieck, is perhaps the screen's first pro-lesbian romance. Set in an all-girls boarding school, the movie focuses on a sensitive girl who falls for one of her teachers—a scenario that has provided fodder for multiple lesbian and gay movies in the ensuing decades. But Mädchen got there first and its frank portrayal of lesbian desire as well as its anti-fascist message—two years before Hitler's rise to power—still carries quite a punch. In German with English subtitles. UIC Professor of Germanic Studies Dr. Sara Hall will introduce the film and lead a post-screening discussion. The movie screens Friday, July 30, at 7 p.m. ( doors at 6:30 p.m. ) as part of CENTERScreen, the Center's ongoing LGBT film series. There is a $8 suggested donation; see www.centeronhalsted.org .

—As part of the ongoing African Jubilee Film Festival, The Public Square and its partners present a screening and discussion of Pumzi, a 23-minute science-fiction film by Wanuri Kahiu set in a world where nature has become extinct. The film will be screened Sunday, Aug. 1, at 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. at the DuSable Museum of African American History, 740 E. 56th Place. The post-screening discussion will focus on African-American women and science fiction. Nnedi Okorafor, a Nigerian-American young adult science-fiction author, will also read selections from her work. The event is free and open to the public. See www.prairie.org/publicsquare.com .

Check out my archived reviews at www.windycitytimes.com or www.knightatthemovies.com . Readers can leave feedback at the latter website.


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