Peter Eramo Reviews: “Dinner for Schmucks” (***)

As a general rule, I am usually very wary of seeing movie remakes, especially ones adapted from very enjoyable/strong foreign films that Americans tend to treat with less than respectable hands. So my expectations were not so very high going in to see Jay Roach’s comedy Dinner for Schmucks – a film inspired from Francis Veber’s wonderfully warm and witty 1998 French film, Le diner de con (The Dinner Game). Deep down, I must admit that I didn’t very much want to like the movie – mainly because I am such a fan of the original and consider myself somewhat of a purist. However, I let the movie do all the work and much to my surprise, Dinner for Schmucks holds its own in many aspects and succeeds at being one of the stronger comedies released this year, providing many laughs throughout.

Tim (Paul Rudd) is a rising executive who wants to move up in the world – he wants a cushy office on the 6th floor where the big boys play and a bigger salary to better provide for his artistic and sophisticated girlfriend, Julie (Stephanie Szostak). Tim feels her rejections to his marriage proposals (two in two days) stem from his lack of success in the business world. When Tim impresses his shallow and ego-maniacal boss (a very effective Bruce Greenwood) at a meeting, he is invited to astound him further at an upcoming dinner party which he hosts each month. The dinner however, has a sinister twist to it, as it is rather, a competition among the invited guests to see who can bring the biggest idiot with him to entertain and amuse the snobbish and well-to-do elite. If Tim can bring an A-1 moron, that promotion is as good as his.

Tim struggles with his conscience and after seeing Julie’s utter displeasure in this tasteless sport, he resolves not to go through with the dinner. Until, that is…he meets Barry (Steve Carell), the perfect idiot sent from Heaven above. Tim sees this as a strong prophetic sign and decides to invite Barry to the dinner. Of course, Barry makes the mistake of showing up at Tim’s one night early — just enough time for numbskull Barry to ruin just about everything in Tim’s life, including his relationship with Julie.

There is a lot that works here, and most of that stems from the chemistry between Rudd and Carell, who have worked with each other before. Rudd plays the straight, sarcastic guy here, while Carell gets the bulk of the laughs with his ridiculous stupidity and, for the most part, it works. Barry is just a pathetic character — he’s lost his wife (who he loves unconditionally) to a rival co-worker (Zach Galifianakis) at the IRS, he has absolutely no friends, and he spends most of his time working on his mouse caricatures — something he is quite skilled at and has an enormous passion for. We should have tremendous empathy for Barry, especially as he is being used here for the sadistic amusement of others — and we do…a little bit at least. A lot of the comedy here is a bit over-the-top, especially in the film’s supporting characters, and that is what keeps us from having absolute compassion for this guy. It plays out a bit unreal, which hurts the film. Jacques Villeret played the idiot in the original film and was absolutely perfect — his facial features and gestures alone moved you near to tears. That is what this American remake is missing.

Jemaine Clement and Judy Punch are very strong in their supporting roles. Clement plays Kieran, the narcissistic artist with the animal magnetism who Tim is very jealous of. Clement does a very nice job at giving the character some heart and conscience beneath all of the bravado – and his connection with Barry is a humorous one. Punch plays the imbalanced and delusional Darla, a one-night stand from years ago who is obsessed with Tim and comes back to wreak more havoc in his life, all thanks to Barry’s snooping. Punch comes off like a deranged, psychotic Courtney Love (is there any other kind?), and is perhaps more upsetting than funny. Kristen Schaal deserves mention here, playing Tim’s assistant Susana. Schaal only has a handful of short scenes here, but is delightfully funny and makes the most out of what may have been a thankless role in another actor’s hands.  Galifianakis plays Barry’s nemesis, Therman, and I have to ask — is anyone tired of this guy yet? It seems to me, this guy just plays the same thing over and over and for me, the moment has surely gone. Therman claims to be a mind-reader and uses this fraudulent talent to possess complete control over poor Barry. An envious rival of Tim’s (Jon Livingston) invites Therman as his own idiot and the two jackasses go mano-y-mano.

The telling scene in this film is when Barry is making his presentation at the actual dinner. Here, Barry is showing off his most impressive works (the evolution of man, the Wright Brothers, Vincent Van Gogh — all depicted by his crafted rodents), and as Tim’s colleagues are secretly laughing at and mocking Barry, we look at Tim and therein lies the key to the movie’s success or failure. Rudd makes this work with great subtlety as Carell forges ahead, completely oblivious. It’s after this key moment that the dinner gets completely out-of-hand and goes too far over the edge, trying to get as many laughs as it can from the variety of invited idiots as the house goes up in flames.

I must say that I laughed out loud quite a bit — and the audience around me seemed to take great delight in it as well. And beneath the slapstick humor and absurd supporting cast of characters, Roach manages to give the film some heart, which is imperative in order for the movie to work at all. It may not be as warm or sincere as its predecessor, but it does provide many laughs and amusing moments throughout. It’s also worth watching Rudd and Carell play off one another. Definitely worth seeing if you need a laugh.

Year:        2010
Director:  Jay Roach

Peter Eramo Reviews: “Cyrus” and “Despicable Me”

While every film nut is desperately awaiting the release of Christopher Nolan’s Inception, I was able to take in a couple of movies this weekend to try and fill in the void. Now, I am not nearly as confident as everyone else seems to be about Nolan’s latest work (I remain cautiously optimistic), but I was expecting to see two good films in Cyrus and the new animated feature Despicable Me. It’s odd because I would rate each film 2 ½ stars, but would recommend the “strong” 2 ½ star film, while suggesting you wait to catch the other on DVD or if it’s playing on cable. I’ll start with Jay and Mark Duplass’ dark comedy, Cyrus.

Cyrus has a lot going for it, starting with its impressive cast of John C. Reilly, Jonah Hill, Catherine Keener and the gorgeous Marisa Tomei. Reilly plays John, who has been divorced for seven years and is still not quite over the hurt of it all. His life has been in a tailspin since, as he lives in a shoddy little apartment and doesn’t ever get out and socialize much. He meets the girl of his dreams in Molly (Tomei) and they hit it off quite well. That is, until he meets her 21-year old son, Cyrus (Hill) who has a lot of twisted Oedipal issues going on inside that little eccentric brain of his. A battle of wits begins between John who is trying to get closer to this wonderful woman he has just met and Cyrus, who will do anything within his power to see that he is out of their lives forever.

I must say that Hill is pretty convincing here in a darker role that we are not accustomed to seeing him in. The way he looks at his nemesis throughout is pretty freaky, with eyes that just seem to pierce through the screen. Reilly is perfect for playing the lovable, awkward loser and his chemistry with Tomei is convincing enough, though I not sure if I ever really bought into them hooking up in the first place. You see, they meet at a party and watching him try to speak to a few of the women there is pretty painful to watch. I know it’s supposed to be funny, but I didn’t find it very humorous as I just sat and squirmed in my seat watching his failed attempts at finding his soul mate. The idea that Molly would be turned on by this was far-fetched to me. I also felt that the Duplass brothers could have taken this premise so much further (as they wrote and directed the film together), but settled for a fairly predictable 2nd and 3rd act. You could surely see how this was all going to play out.

I guess in the end I didn’t find the film to be all that funny. Sure, there were some funny moments between Reilly and his counterpart and I thought his first scene with Tomei was charming and witty, but it felt much more like a drama to me, which is absolutely fine. Also, I didn’t find the abnormally close relationship between mother-and-son here to be all that realistic. I give the Duplass brothers credit for not going over-the-top here, as they could have easily done. Instead, they go for real, genuine moments and the motives of the characters are believable throughout. This is not a bad film by any means – I just felt there could have been so much more and even with all the crap that is permeating theatres at the moment, I would recommend that you see this one at home rather than pay the $10 in the theatre.

Director: Mark and Jay Duplass
Year: 2010

To view the trailer for Cyrus, click here.

Universal Pictures’ new animated feature Despicable Me (which grossed an astounding $60m in its opening weekend) is a very different kind of comedy, of course. I must first say that I enjoyed this film very much and laughed quite a bit. Steve Carell is the voice of Gru, a super villain who takes great delight in all things wicked. At the moment, he is facing stiff competition from an up-and-coming, younger villain in Vector (voiced by Jason Segal) who has just stolen a world-famous Egyptian pyramid. So Gru is now in the midst of planning the world’s greatest heist of all – with the help of his army of little minions, he plans on stealing the moon! Vector steals the almighty shrink ray from Gru, so now Gru must find a way into the very secure home of his worthy archenemy. To do so, Gru adopts three little girls from an orphanage who want nothing in life but a loving parent. Gru seems to have faced many great trials in his life, but nothing compares to the challenge of these three sweeties who see something in Gru that no one else ever has.

Carell’s voice for Gru is terrific and made me laugh throughout. He’s got a lot of great lines here and is the source of most of the film’s comedy. The actions of his many little yellow minions also made for some great comedy. The three little girls are adorable, especially the voice of Elsie Fisher’s Agnes, the youngest of the lot. Seeing the relationship between the devilish Gru and the girls grow is also rather sweet.

Compared to other animated films though, Despicable Me sadly falls a bit short and that lies with the prescribed storyline. The character of Gru was funny, but not much else really is. I enjoyed it, but could not help feeling that so much more could have happened here. I think kids will certainly love the film and have a great experience with it. However, I’m not so sure about most adults. Most of the new animated features work on both levels, engaging an adult audience just as much as the kids they appear to be catered to. Despicable Me doesn’t offer much more than a very funny front man and the crazy little minions (who I loved) — but no other characters really stand out. I don’t know if I am nit-picking on an animated film, but I also felt the way in which Gru learns to love the three girls was far too easy and not fully developed. All in all though, it is a sweet film with a big heart and I would highly recommend taking kids to see it. Looking at it a bit more critically, it just misses measuring up to some of the “better” animated films such as Happy Feet, Over the Hedge, or Monsters, Inc.

Director: Pierre Coffin & Chris Renaud
Year: 2010

To view the trailer for Despicable Me, click here.

Gimme 5: Your 5 Favorite Animated Flicks!

I chose the theme for this week’s Gimme 5! feature in honor of the release of Despicable Me,which stars the voices of Steve Carell, Jason Segal, Miranda Cosgrove and Kristin Wiig. The film opens nationwide today and as a fan of animated features, I remain very excited to see it.

The Pixar animated film Toy Story 3 was released on June 18th and has already made an astronomical $313 million at the box-office and is still steadily rising. In recent years, animated features have proven that they aren’t just for children anymore — with many showing more originality, intelligence and humor than most of the dreck that comes  out of Hollywood.

So for this week’s Gimme 5!….

Gimme Your 5 Favorite Animated Movies!

I Will Start…

5. Monsters, Inc. (2001)
4. South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (1999)
3. Beauty and the Beast (1991)
2. Dumbo (1941)
1. The Iron Giant (1999)

Now It’s Your Turn….

Peter Eramo DVD Pick from the 90′s: “The Dinner Game”

Some of you may have already seen the trailer for the new comedy “Dinner with Schmucks” (due out in July) starring Steve Carell and Paul Rudd. It looks pretty damn funny, right? I am sure it will be. However, this is an American version of a truly wonderful 1998 French film called “Le Diner de Cons” or, “The Dinner Game” written and directed by Francis Veber.

The premise seems to be exactly the same. In the original, the very well-to-do Pierre (Thierry Lhermitte) and his friends have a somewhat mean-spirited competition: each of them tries to find the dumbest idiot he can possibly find and that invited guest has to speak about himself as much a s possible. When all of the duped ones leave, the group of friends makes fun of all of them and elects a winner — who brought the biggest imbecile? For this particular week, Pierre picks Francois Pignon (Jacques Villeret), a simple man who works for the Internal Revenue Service. Villeret is extraordinarily funny — he is perfect here and makes for terrific bait for Pierre, but he also brings a wonderful warmth to the role and viewers cannot help but empathize with him.

Now you may have never heard of this movie and may not know any of the stars, but I would highly recommend that you put this in your rental queue and see it before the release of the new American version. It is a very funny film — and also very sweet. I am sure that Carell and Rudd will make for a winning pair and that the movie will do well at the box-office, but I wanted to alert you to the original which I have been a great fan of since I saw it when it was first released. So if you are looking for something a little different, don’t mind French subtitles and you are simply looking for a smart, sweet and very funny movie for the night, go rent “The Dinner Game.” If you’d like to see the trailer, just click here.

Peter Eramo Reviews: “Date Night” (* ½)

Well, they are the king and queen of sitcom television (so I hear), so you knew it wouldn’t be long before Hollywood decided to cast Steve Carell and Tiny Fey opposite one another for the big screen. The result is Shawn Levy’sDate Night,” and sadly, the movie offers very few laughs, some very poor dialogue, and almost no originality.

Carell and Fey play the Fosters – a middle-class, suburban New Jersey couple who discover that their close friends are getting a divorce, sending them a much needed wake-up call.  Between taking care of the kids and managing their respective careers, they are worried that their lives have fallen into one gigantic, wearisome rut. Phil Foster (Carell) wants to do something about that gosh darn-it, and does so by shaking up their weekly humdrum ‘Date Night’ and bringing it to the bright lights of Manhattan. After he “steals” another couple’s reservation at a very trendy, chic restaurant, the mayhem ensues. Or perhaps I should say, wish it had ensued.

The exhilarating and dangerous night that the Fosters face is filled with mistaken identities, a corrupt D.A., cops on the take, car chases, a few cameos to try and keep us entertained, and for some odd reason, an almost empty New York City, where no one can be seen in the world’s most famous park and very few cars and pedestrians take up the normally crowded busy streets.

Tina Fey may be the darling of primetime, but she cannot carry a movie (see the disastrous “Baby Mama”). At best, she makes for a solid supporting role (see “The Invention of Lying”). Carell has already proven he can tackle film and do so convincingly in a wide variety of roles that showcase an impressive range. Here, he is just given a poor script and not given very much to do. William Fichtner, a very strong character actor, is wasted here and his caricature of a district attorney is embarrassing. And the scenes with Detective Arroyo (Taraji P. Henson) were all terribly, terribly written. I will say that the scenes with Mark Wahlberg were quite amusing. Wahlberg plays the always shirtless Holbrooke, who helps the Fosters out throughout the course of this whacky, crazy evening. The funniest scene of the film is when the Fosters finally meet up with the young couple (two fun cameos) who has the computer chip they have been looking for all night.

I don’t really consider myself much of a movie snob – I like a goofy comedy every now and then like anybody else.  Here, I went in to this film thinking that it would at least be funny and good for a few laughs. But instead, all I got was predictability all the way through: the emasculated man must prove to his wife that he can take care of her and save the day, the marriage that once seem to be tedious is now revived, etc., etc., etc.  It’s really too bad because Carell and Fey, with all of their comedic talents, are much better than this shlock and deserve more.

Director:    Shawn Levy
Year:          2010

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