July 31 (Bloomberg) -- Given its unfortunate title, you might think “Dinner for Schmucks” is a gross-out comedy. In fact, it’s a sophisticated, clever adaptation of a French film featuring a cute collection of stuffed mice, a blind fencer and a bird that eats out of a man’s mouth.
This English version of Francis Veber’s “The Dinner Game” concerns a financial hotshot in Los Angeles who plays along with a cruel parlor game to get a better job. Stars Steve Carell and Paul Rudd are in top form, and there are also weirdly wonderful characters played by Jemaine Clement and Zach Galifianakis.
Tim (Rudd) is a private-equity analyst whose stunning girlfriend (Stephanie Szostak) is a curator working with a mad artist (Clement) who likes to dress up in animal outfits. Tim is about to be promoted, but first he must attend a dinner hosted by his macho boss (Bruce Greenwood) where all the invitees bring an “idiot” they can make fun of. The one who brings the biggest fool wins.
Tim’s entry is Barry (Carell), an IRS drone and self-taught taxidermist who makes elaborate dioramas with stuffed mice dressed up as people. They meet when Tim’s car collides with Barry, who reacts as if it’s his fault and proceeds to show the driver who almost killed him some of his favorite “mousterpieces.” Tim quickly realizes he’s hit the jackpot and invites Barry to the dinner, where he hopes to impress a snooty Swiss tycoon (David Walliams) who’s considering investing his fortune with the firm.
Then everything falls apart. Thanks to Barry’s bungling, Tim loses his girlfriend, gets stalked by a bubble-brained blonde and has a disastrous meeting with the Swiss millionaire and his wife. The movie moves toward its hysterical climax at the idiot’s dinner, where the blind fencer, a ventriloquist with a bawdy dummy and the man-pecking bird compete for the top prize with Barry’s boss (Galifianakis), a strangely toupeed mind reader who stole Barry’s wife.
Director Jay Roach, whose credits include the “Austin Powers” series, “Meet the Parents” and “Meet the Fockers,” contrasts the cynicism of the financial wheeler-dealers with the naivete of the “idiots.” It’s not hard to figure out who the real fools are.
“Dinner for Schmucks,” from Paramount Pictures, is playing across the U.S. Rating: ***1/2
‘Smash His Camera’
Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis sued him, Marlon Brando broke his jaw and Sean Penn spit on him. And they weren’t the only celebrities who despised photographer Ron Galella.
The pesky paparazzo angered many of his famous subjects with his in-your-face style, but it paid off. His photos have appeared in publications around the world and been displayed at prestigious museums and galleries, including London’s Tate Modern and New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
“Smash His Camera” is a lively documentary on Galella’s life and times, including his famous photograph of Onassis, with wind-swept hair and a Mona Lisa smile, crossing a New York street. Directed by Leon Gast (“When We Were Kings”), it’s a warts-and-all portrait of a gung-ho guy who’s still hustling for snapshots at 79.
The film includes interviews with Galella’s friends and foes, but the most interesting talking head is the photographer himself. He obviously loves his work, enjoys talking about it and doesn’t consider it harmful, despite what Sean Penn thinks.
“Smash His Camera,” from Magnolia Pictures, is playing in New York. Rating: ***
‘The Extra Man’
Kevin Kline’s playful performance as a failed playwright who escorts wealthy widows around Manhattan is the only reason to see “The Extra Man,” a rather lifeless comedy of manners.
The movie, based on a novel by Jonathan Ames, centers on the relationship between Henry Harrison (Kline) and Louis Ives (Paul Dano), a former prep-school teacher who rents a room in Henry’s apartment and becomes his understudy as an escort.
Both of them are highly eccentric. Henry, who tries to live an upper-crust life even though he’s broke, dances wildly by himself, drives a jalopy with one functional door, sneaks into the opera and smears shoe polish on his shins to look like socks. Louis enjoys cross-dressing, fantasizes he’s a character in an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel and pays a dominatrix to spank him. He also has a crush on Mary (Katie Holmes), a co-worker at an environmental magazine, though he’s clueless about the opposite sex.
Directed by husband-and-wife team Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman (“American Splendor”), the film features a Swiss hunchback, a soused nonagenarian billionaress and a stuffed lion toy thrown from a fire escape. While it sounds cute, the characters are thinly drawn and too prone to parody to make us care about their fates.
“The Extra Man,” from Magnolia Pictures, is playing in New York and opens Aug. 6 in Los Angeles. Rating: *1/2
I’ve seen a lot of movies about depression, but none made me understand the condition better than “Helen.”
Ashley Judd, who’s been wasted in too many schlocky thrillers, gives the best performance of her career as a music professor whose profound gloom threatens to destroy her career and marriage. While she grows distant from her lawyer husband (Goran Visnjic) and teenage daughter (Alexia Fast) from a previous marriage, Helen bonds with one of her students (Lauren Lee Smith), who is also tormented by a mental disorder.
Depression sends Helen into almost a catatonic state, where she has trouble talking, can’t focus and weeps for seemingly no reason. It’s impossible for her to explain the feelings to her husband, who eventually has her committed to a mental institution, where her life takes a dramatic turn.
Judd avoids scenery-chewing, letting Helen’s depression reveal itself in quiet moments. You feel her pain and her despair.
“Helen,” written and directed by Sandra Nettelbeck, was filmed almost three years ago and shown at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival. Now it’s finally being released in the U.S. Don’t let the downbeat subject scare you away. In the end, it’s as much about hope as depression.
“Helen,” from E1 Entertainment, is playing in New York. Rating: ***
What the Stars Mean: **** Excellent *** Good ** Average * Poor (No stars) Worthless
(Rick Warner is the movie critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)
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