Dinner for Schmucks is based on a French film but don’t hold that against it. Its similarities to Le Diner de Cons Francis Veber’s 1998 farce about a group of cynical publishing executives who host a weekly “dinner for idiots ” are primarily conceptual. To make it suitable for American audiences director Jay Roach (of Austin Powers and Meet the Parents fame) and screenwriters David Guion and Michael Handelman safely cleansed their big-budget adaptation of any smoking philandering “mean-spiritedness ” or any other icky behavior that might make some of us Yanks uncomfortable. Whew.
Preeminent straight man Paul Rudd (Role Models I Love You Man) plays Tim an ambitious young investment banker on the verge of joining the elite ranks at his firm. But in order to be fully inducted into the executive inner circle he must first participate in a peculiar ritual called the “Dinner for Winners ” a monthly event hosted by his boss Lance (Bruce Greenwood) to which each attendee is charged with bringing a high-functioning dimwit for the rest of the guests to ridicule. More than just a company tradition it’s an opportunity for high-climbers like Tim to prove their mettle in an area crucial to the success of stereotypically cutthroat businessmen: exhibiting callous disregard for those who exist on the fringes of society. Needless to say attendance at the dinner is not optional.
Tim believes he’s found the ideal dinner guest when he literally runs into Barry (Steve Carell) a clumsy bespectacled IRS employee whose great passion in life involves staging elaborate dioramas with taxidermic mice. Several of Barry’s exquisitely strange creations dubbed “mouseterpieces ” are depicted in the film’s opening sequence which proudly nods to the intricate quirk of Wes Anderson. (Its soundtrack even apes his musical tastes playing an obscure song from a legendary rock band: the Beatles’ Fool on the Hill a melancholy little number that cost a paltry $1.5 million to license.)
That’s where the comparisons to Anderson’s work end. As a director Roach’s greatest asset has always been his ability to assemble a group of talented comic actors and hand them the reigns trusting that they’ll produce enough funny material for him to sow together into a relatively cohesive piece. It’s what fueled Roach’s better works like the first Austin Powers flick and it’s ultimately what saves Dinner for Schmucks from falling victim to the director’s less admirable qualities namely a penchant for contrived and predictable situational humor an over-reliance on cheap physical and sight gags and a general disregard for plot and pacing.
Carell has carved a lucrative niche for himself playing charmingly oblivious goofballs of varying levels of competence and he earns every dime of his reported $15 million paycheck in this film. Rudd’s character for all his caustic wit isn’t nearly as manipulative or amoral as his French counterpart; we never truly believe him capable of deliberately humiliating an innocent like Barry even if he does drive a Porsche.
But they labor heroically to make the most of their suboptimal comedic circumstances forming an amiable intermittently hilarious odd-couple dynamic as Tim struggles to contain the chaos wrought by Barry. That combined with the efforts of Jemaine Clement and Zach Galifianakis both sublime in supporting roles are what ultimately what elevate the film above its meagre material. These are guys who could send us into hysterics reading a grocery list which in this case would constitute an upgrade over the Dinner for Schmucks screenplay.
It’s Halloween Eve in suburbia and while most of the neighborhood kids are gearing up for a candy extravaganza two young‘uns--DJ (voiced by Mitchell Musso) and Chowder (voiced by Sam Lerner)--are fretting and dreading. They’re convinced that the decrepit house across the street is in fact a monster house inhabited by an old hermit named Nebbercracker (voiced by Steve Buscemi) that will lure kids in on Halloween night. But just as DJ’s parents who naturally don’t believe him to begin with leave for a vacation DJ inadvertently sends Nebbercracker to his death--or so he fears. Now DJ believes Nebbercracker’s monster house will seek revenge on him specifically and to make matters worse his negligent babysitter (voiced by Maggie Gyllenhaal) won’t hear of his yapping. After DJ and Chowder are forced to take action they along with a girl peddling candy (voiced by Spencer Locke) discover how the monster came to be and just how unforgiving she is. When it comes to animation acting the main goal is to make audiences forget that the actors are giving their performances in a studio possibly dressed in their PJs and sans makeup. That goal’s usually achieved but Monster House takes a gamble in supposing that child actors comprising the lead characters will be able to wrap their still-expanding brains around the concept. Somehow Lerner and Musso grasp this despite sounding like they haven’t even been in this world very long! The two are surrounded by a fail-proof supporting cast: it takes a while to recognize Buscemi’s voice as Nebbercracker but once it hits it fits and Gyllenhaal as the babysitter is great if unpredictable casting. Quasi-cameos from Jason Lee as Gyllenhaal’s punk boyfriend Jon Heder as a video-game god and Kevin James and Nick Cannon as slow-moving and -thinking cops garner the most laughs. Not only does it help a film’s box office performance to have Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis onboard as executive producers it helps a film’s director--in this case a rookie director named Gil Kenan. (Zemeckis directed ‘04’s somewhat similar-looking The Polar Express.) While the animation doesn’t quite stand up to say Pixar’s earth-shattering visuals Kenan makes up for it with a fun-filled story (from scripters Dan Harmon Rob Schrab and Pamela Pettler) and an overall lively involved effort--and it’s not like the movie doesn’t still look gorgeous. Besides sometimes it’s refreshing to not be so entranced by the CGI that you lose sight of the actual movie at hand. Kenan’s film is one of the scarier animated movies in a while but that still doesn’t exclude many age groups. What the first-time director thrives on is stopping just shy of true horror moments at which point he reverts to feel-good mode without ever being sappy.
Looney Tunes: Back in Action revisits an age-old Tunes question: Why does the affable Bugs reap all the fame and glory while the egocentric Daffy gets shafted again and again? Our duck friend quite frankly has had it up to his skinny neck playing second fiddle to the carrot muncher. All Daffy wants is a little recognition from the studio but the brothers Warner (actual twin brothers as we come to find out) decide instead to let Daffy out of his contract on the advice of their no-nonsense VP of comedy Kate Houghton (Jenna Elfman). Bugs however knows they're making a mistake. Even though Daff bears the brunt of the abuse Looney Tunes would fail without him and Bugs convinces the powers that be they need the nutty mallard. If the plot had only followed this thread--perhaps showing Daffy on the skids--then maybe the film wouldn't have spiraled into Looneyville. Unfortunately Daffy ends up hooking up with the hunky D.J. Drake (Brendan Fraser) a studio security guard who finds out that his famous movie star father Damian Drake (Timothy Dalton) is really a secret agent hunting for a mysterious diamond known as the Blue Monkey a supernatural gem that can turn the planet's population into monkeys. The evil head of the Acme Corporation Mr. Chairman (Steve Martin) wants the diamond for his own diabolical plans and he's kidnapped D.J.'s dad in an effort to get it. Now the gang has to get the diamond save D.J.'s dad and of course save the world.
It might be a little hard to act subtly around cartoon characters but these aren't your ordinary cutesy Mickey Mouse types. Bugs Daffy Porky Yosemite Sam and Foghorn Leghorn are pros at comic timing able to spar with the best of them throw out zingers without a second thought and slay you with a droll glance at the camera. It isn't really necessary for the human actors to match their madcap-ness; just reacting would have sufficed. Fraser comes off the best of the human bunch; since he's had practice (Monkeybone) he easily interacts with his animated co-stars and deftly handles the doubletakes and jabs at pop culture. Elfman on the other hand sputters and goes bug-eyed every time she encounters silliness. She looks uncomfortable doing the green screen thing especially when she's trying to look natural when peeling a distraught duck from around her waist. Martin's highly anticipated turn as Mr. Chairman turns out to be the biggest disappointment. The over-the-top character is reminiscent of Martin's hysterically funny Rupert the Monkeyboy in 1988's Dirty Rotten Scoundrels but Martin turns Mr. Chairman--an angry schoolboy with knee socks and matted-down hair who never grew up--into a caricature of ridiculous proportions and unlike Rupert who came in small hilarious doses Mr. Chairman gets very tiresome very quickly.
Back in Action's animation is well done more engaging and ambitious than its 1996 predecessor Space Jam in which the action mostly took place in Looney Tunes land; here animated characters go the Who Framed Roger Rabbit? route and Bugs Daffy and the rest coexist harmoniously with humans in the real world. But despite its aspirations Back in Action leaves out vital elements that made Space Jam appealing. While the earlier film stuck to a simple plot Back in Action guided by director Joe Dante (Small Soldiers The 'Burbs) tries too hard to keep things wild and wacky while incorporating elements of '60s heist pics and action-adventure scenes and in the process loses sight of the most important ingredient in any kids movie: the story. Tykes may have limited attention spans but if the story's good they will watch. Granted some individual bits are laugh-out-loud funny particularly the scene in the Warner Bros. commissary where a stuttering Porky Pig complains about being politically incorrect with Speedy Gonzales while an animated Shaggy and Scooby-Doo berate actor Matthew Lillard for playing Shaggy as such a bonehead in the live-action Scooby-Doo. These scenes prove that if any cartoon characters could pass themselves off as real celebrities in the entertainment industry the gang from Looney Tunes could but moments like these simply can't overcome a contrived plot and juvenile antics.