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'Dinner for Schmucks': a long time between courses

Producers, co-writers and a director committed to the remake of the French comedy as studios and actors added drama by leaving the project.

July 25, 2010|By Steven Zeitchik, Los Angeles Times

It began, as so many things do, on the Paris stage.

That's not where you'd expect a star-heavy, big-budget studio comedy to start its odyssey. But it's hardly the only unusual place to which "Dinner for Schmucks," the Steve Carell and Paul Rudd remake of a French screwball comedy, detoured on its road to the multiplex Friday. The film followed a tortured path littered with nasty corporate divorces, tumultuous writers strikes, skittish financiers and, just to round out the colorful Hollywood journey, a reluctant Borat.

"We had our share of curveballs," says co-writer David Guion, his voice betraying understatement. "It was kind of hard to remain calm."

All these tribulations are appropriate given the film's subject matter — "Dinner for Schmucks" is, after all, about bad luck, telling the story of a hapless man and the chaos he brings with him. In the poignant comedy, corporate climber Tim (Rudd) is assigned by his cruel bosses to bring a delusional loser to a swanky dinner at which buffoons are gathered and surreptitiously mocked. Tim invites Barry (Carell), a misfit, relentlessly chipper IRS employee who spends his free time building dioramas out of stuffed dead mice. Barry seems harmless enough, but in short order, Tim's apartment is trashed, his girlfriend has left him and his job is in peril.

All film projects are a house of cards, in danger of toppling at any moment. But even with its A-list names, "Dinner for Schmucks" was more precarious than most, as though the same unseen forces that make Barry such a hard-luck case were exerting themselves on the production itself.

In 1993, Francis Veber, a well-regarded French writer who wrote the screenplay of "La Cage aux Folles," debuted "Le Diner de Cons" on the French stage. Translated as "Dinner for Idiots," it centered on a go-getter and a bumbler whose paths intersect. The screwball comedy played well in Paris, but that's like saying hockey is popular in Canada. Five years later, Veber adapted it for the screen, and although the French-language film won three Césars (France's version of the Oscars), its appeal in the U.S. was limited, becoming only an art-house hit.

It might have ended there had Walter Parkes, the DreamWorks chief and force behind big-budget hits such as "Gladiator" and "Men in Black," not stepped in. Parkes' wife and partner, Laurie MacDonald, had read the play, and Parkes later saw, and liked, the movie. The executive has an affinity for the clumsy-guest-at-dinner conceit — he would also try to remake the Peter Sellers classic "The Party" — and with its "Odd Couple" premise and physical slapstick, "Le Diner de Cons," he thought, could be a mainstream American comedy. "What struck us was that this was a really good example of a kind of mini-genre of comedies about characters who are quite self-satisfied, until another character with a spirit of anarchy is thrown into their lives," Parkes says.

In 2000, he and MacDonald optioned the work and began hiring writers. Several years later, Sacha Baron Cohen committed to play the buffoon, and began developing it with them. But by the middle of 2007, various drafts weren't working, and it looked unlikely that Parkes, now a DreamWorks-based producer, would get a movie made. But a burst of energy came with Jay Roach.

A veteran presence with a deft comic touch, Roach has the rare ability to make cringe-comedy digestible for a mainstream audience, as fans of his "Meet the Parents" and "Meet the Fockers" know. "I like the classic dramatic device of handcuffing people together, people who are repulsed by each other," he says. Roach also says he liked the way the two-handed premise played on both our sadistic and softer impulses. "I think we all have both sides — we're tempted to make fun of people and we see ourselves as the ones who could be made fun of." Roach also had numerous blockbusters under his belt — he directed all three "Austin Powers" movies — the kind of credential that can pave the way to a green light.

The soft-spoken director was in a dark place at the time. Roach had been laboring for several years on "Used Guys," a science-fiction comedy whose development woes and near-misses are legend in Hollywood. After a process Roach describes as "losing a year and a half of my life," he was hoping for a smooth project to come along. "Schmucks" was just the ticket. Parkes hired Roach, who brought along two of his writing collaborators from "Used Guys," Guion and Michael Handelman. As Labor Day rolled around in 2007, all systems were go.

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