MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: Dinner for Schmucks, Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore, Charlie St. Cloud, The Concert, 8 1/2

Dinner for Schmucks (Two and a Half Stars)
U.S.; Jay Roach, 2010

There are plenty of primo American comedy actors around right now; all we really need is the movies to put them in. Dinner for Schmucks, with its story courtesy  of French buddy-comedy master Francis Veber, and its showcase roles for Paul Rudd, Zach Galifianakis, and that nonpareil doofus comedy king Steve Carell — almost makes it, but not quite.

By my unofficial and almost certainly inaccurate count, one third of the jokes work (including most of the ones involving Carell), one third of them fall sort of flat and one third muck and snicker around somewhere in the middle, before flying off into some weird outer-space of Hollywood schmuck-humor. That’s not a bad average, actually. Director Jay Roach‘s Austin Powers movies don’t always hit that mark.

Schmucks is an Americanization of that very funny Veber comedy, The Dinner Game. (The original French title was Le Diner des Cons which may translate more accurately as “Dinner for Assholes.“) Dinner Game is all about a mock and mocking get-together in which smug bourgeois business-creeps invite what they consider obnoxious losers (or their inferiors) to a dejeuner, indulge and secretly ridicule them, and then present a prize for the biggest schmuck, or most outrageous asshole. Of course, the tables get turned. Of course, the asshole and the bourgeois who invited him — Veber’s original mismatched dinner companions were anxious Thierry Lhermitte and the unusually annoying Jacques Villeret — wind up sort of liking each other.

Rudd and Carell play the bourgeois and the schmuck here , and they’re actors who work terrifically well together, as they already showed in Judd Apatow‘s The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Rudd plays Tim Conrad, a would-be exec success with a sexy-sweet art gallery girlfriend named Julie (Stephanie Szostak). Tim, who thinks he can impress Julie with money, is a nice guy whose naïve desire for winner status in a typical callous corporation full of well-dressed bullies, back-stabbers and ass-kissers, makes him easy prey to the invitation of his “con” of a boss, Lance Fender (Bruce Greenwood, with his world-class smirk) that he find a loser and come to party with the winners. Rudd is a perfect fit for a role like this: he‘s like a less nervous Jack Lemmon, crossed with a slightly dazed and confused Billy Crystal.

Carell‘s Barry  — a repressed and goofily grinning IRS auditor whom Tim accidentally hits with his car  — is too well-meaning and terminally nice to be called a real asshole. He‘s the ideal perfect loser though. Like Peter Sellers (whose eerie mastery of comic accents gives him the actor’s edge on everybody), Carell can go so deeply into comic self-delusion, that he pulls us all down there with him. And like Sellers, he‘s trapped in his own masks. Carell‘s characters’ fantasies about themselves (notably the self-infatuated boss Michael in The Office, who might love the idea of holding a Dinner for Schmucks) seem more real than the “reality” around them. Barry is repressed, seemingly friendless and emotionally needy, and he has such a yearning for a buddy that he tries to pay Tim damages for running him down. Once Tim makes contact with the smitten Barry, and over joys him by inviting him to dinner, he can’t shake him loose.

Barry also has a wild talent: he’s an artist/taxidermist who makes “Mouseterpieces,” in which stuffed mice are posed in little dioramas of classic artworks like Da Vinci‘s The Last Supper. These dioramas actually aren’t bad at all. They certainly indicate more talent than any of Tim‘s poisonously smug workfellows, a gang of jerks who probably would have seen the real-life Vincent van Gogh as the ultimate loser. I would have loved to see what the film’s Barry could have done with one of Brueghel’s peasant village paintings or with Bosch‘s “Garden of Earthly Delights.“

In fact, continuing the Sellers comparison, I’d have loved to see Carell taking a whack at Inspector Clouseau in a decent Pink Panther remake, with Steve Martin assuming his more natural role of Inspector Dreyfus.

Anyway, Roach here predictably inflates everything in Dinner Game’s deliciously wicked premise, into gargantuan proportions, laced with sentimentality. Tim recruits Barry for the party, alienating exactly the lady he wanted to impress: girlfriend Julie. Soon, he‘s knee-deep in schmucks, including himself, his bosses, and his stalker ex-date Darla (Lucy Punch). Julie is being chased by a randy phony of a voguish artist named Kerain (Jemaine Clement), whose favorite subject is himself. And the dinner  party includes Tom’s mind-reading jerk of a fellow employee Therman (Galifianakis), along with the competing assholes..

Veber didn’t show the dinner. Roach and his writers, David Guion and Michael Handelman (The Ex) stage a real Fancy Feast in a mansion of a dining hall, and send their movie right over the edge. Still, Carell and Rudd are a nearly ideal classic smoothie-and stooge  comedy team (in the tradition of Crosby and Hope, Martin and Lewis, or Abbott and Costello), and with Galifianakis around they make up two stooges and a smoothie.

The script isn’t structured very well and the jokes are erratic all the way through. In this feast of comics, there’s sometimes a famine of laughs. But the laughs are there eventually. I’ll bet there was a lot of improvisation on this set — and with Dinner for Schmucks gallery of stooges and smoothies, and Barry’s gallery of mouseterpieces, you get at least some of your comedy money’s worth.

By the way,  I think Lisa Schwartzbaum is right and a more fitting title for this movie would have been “Dinner for Idiots” — which is the word used most often in the picture. What brought on the alternate title? Who knows? Perhaps these moviemakers figured nobody really knew the derivation of “schmuck.“ And perhaps they didn‘t want to risk offending the nation‘s influential and growing idiot constituency, which, judging from some of our nightly “news” shows, is poised to take over the U. S. congress. Well, if that’s true, I hope at least some of these spoilers and lawmakers and their “fair and balanced” cheerleaders win a well-deserved schmuck award or two. God knows they’ve earned it.


Cats and Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore (One and a Half Stars)
U.S.; Brad Payton, 2010

I wouldn‘t wish this movie — a parody of James Bond films starring  animatronics or digitally-enlivened cats and dogs in comedy super spy roles — on my worst enemy. In fact, after the opening credits, a parody of Maurice Binder‘s floating Bond Girl credits with floating Bond Kitties, and right after the opening scene, where a cute little puppy starts photographing secret documents  —  I desperately wanted to leave.

No such luck. Soon the movie was happily introducing me to its photogenic, barking hero, Diggs, a well-meaning but over-enthusiastic police  German Shepherd (voiced by James Marsden), whose cop-buddy Shane (Chris O‘Donnell) can’t save him for the over-punctilious force. Diggs though is rather oddly being recruited by the Central Intelligence Arf, or whatever it was, to fight the insidious Kitty Galore (Bette Midler). And Diggs is paired with ace spy, feline beauty and exemplar of dog and cat détente Catherine (voiced by Christina Applegate).

The writers’ chutzpah, or catzpah, knows no bounds. They’ve written a scene for villainous cat Mr. Tinkles, in which he’s strapped up in a cell like Hannibal Lecter, and they have a doggie role for ex-Bondsman Roger Moore, as tuxedo cat Tad Lazenby (last name in honor of the star of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service). I’m glad Daniel Craig and Timothy Dalton resisted their blandishments. But what about a cameo for Sean Connery as a Scottie?

Still I stayed, despite scenes that certainly amounted to cruel and inhuman treatment. At one point, a cat-loving little old lady was nearly buried in her own kitty litter. (Old people falling, by the way, is not a joke.) And Kitty Galore has been made hairless, so you actually sympathize with her. One question is never answered: How are all these chatty critters able to carry on long conversations without ever being spotted by humans? And, since Q isn’t around, who built all their gadgets? (Cats and dogs, remember, have no opposable thumbs.)

But let’s not be literal. No idiots, I trust, were harmed during the making of Cats and Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore. Worse movies have been made. But words cannot really describe what I felt  watching it  (70 minutes shot to hell and the possibility of recurring kitty litter nightmares to boot.) I defy any reasonably hip five-year old to disagree with me. Perhaps though this movie will be the springboard of what now seems a badly needed adjunct of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals: The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Audiences by Animatronics and Animals.


Charlie St. Cloud (Two Stars)
U.S.; Burt Steers, 2010

Mystical love stories about star-crossed teen lovers, and baseball-mitt pounding kid brothers from beyond the grave, aren’t my cup of saccharine-laced tea. But if you have to look at something like that, you could perhaps do worse than Charlie St. Cloud. It’s a ridiculous movie, but it’s also good looking, well shot in Pacific Northwest coast forests and shorelines. Its star/lovers are hot-looking too and also likeably flirtatious.

Professional cutie-pie Zac Efron (of the awful High School Musical movies and the very good but sadly ignored Me and Orson Welles) plays the title character: guilt-plagued Charlie McCloud. Amanda Crew is svelte and spunky boating enthusiast Tess Carroll. And that baseball-heaving ghostly kid brother, young Sam McCloud, is smashingly played by Charlie Tahan, a good kid actor who looks a bit like a youthful Steve Zahn, repainted by Norman Rockwell.

On the other hand, if you’re looking for a movie that makes a lick of sense or impinges on the real world in any meaningful way, you‘re better off going back to “Inception” for another shot at the labyrinth, or waiting for some new ultra-realistic American indie.

Charlie St. Cloud is based  on a novel by Ben Sherwood called The Death and Life of Charlie St. Cloud, and it plays like something that might have slipped away from Nicholas Sparks on an off day. The movie begins with the brothers McCloud, poorer kids mingling with the smug smart-ass rich kids, winning a sailboat race and jumping and hugging each other in sunny freeze-frames.


It’s too sweet to last. Soon we’re introduced to their pretty single mom, Kim Basinger as Claire St. Cloud. And, all too soon, the brothers have driven off together in the night (Sam insisted on tagging along, which is a real danger sign), and gotten involved in a horrendous car-car-truck accident, one fatality and the temporary flat-lining of Charlie. He‘s saved by gabby paramedic Florio Ferrente (Ray Liotta).

But Sam isn’t gone. His spirit lingers on, pounding his baseball mitt in the nearby forest, and waiting for faithful Charlie, who has promised to meet his dead little brother every day for a game of catch and a catch-up confab. Nobody else can see Sam of course, which eventually leaves them wondering why Charlie is babbling so fervently to the air and the trees. (“I talk to the trees, but they don’t listen to me,“ as Clint Eastwood once memorably sang in Paint Your Wagon.)

Eventually, five years pass. Mom Claire has left Charlie and relocated. (I really wondered about her readiness to leave both her dead son and the living one.) And Charlie has gotten a job at the local cemetery so he can be near Sam and any other stray spirits who might materialize. He has a nearly incomprehensible Brit buddy named Alistair (Augustus Prew), and a crush on a fetching lass who shows up:  a Kate Beckinsale-ish ex-classmate and dish named Tess, who makes a fuss about the cemetery flower arrangements. Waiting in the wings, is paramedic Florio, who has a message for Charlie

You may wonder why Charlie has been able to show up every day for that game of catch for all that time. I wondered myself. No sickness? No pressing engagements? No thunderstorms? What will the poor guy do when Tess on her boat gets predictably lost in a storm? Take a rain check?


Will love survive the grave? Will we ever see a marquee pairing of Amanda Crew and Augustus Prew? Will Success Spoil Zac Efron?

Tune in tomorrow. Meanwhile, with Efron, staring mooningly at Tess and the camera, Charlie St. Cloud may please teen or ‘tweens still in full squeal over Robert Pattinson and Taylor Lautner, and ready for a Zac attack or two — even if the guy isn’t a vampire, or even a werewolf. Boating enthusiasts and devotees of loves beyond the grave may also brush away a tear or two.

But how much can you expect of a movie with a paramedic named Florio Ferrente and a ghost with a baseball mitt named Sam?


The Concert (Three Stars)
France; Radu Mihaileanu, 2010


Classical symphonic music was made for the movies to celebrate. And I have to admit that Radu Milhaileanu’s The Concert may have earned an extra star from me simply because it climaxes with a fiery performance of Tchaikovsky’s great Violin Concerto, very plausibly mimed by stars Melanie Laurent and Aleksei Guskov, as the movie‘s world-famous French solo violinist Anne-Marie Jacquet and legendary Russian orchestral conductor Andrei Filipov, joining together with an orchestra of outcasts masquerading as the Bolshoi Symphony, for  a melodramatic finale that brings down the house.


The acting throughout Concert is pretty lusty too, a mix of comedy, drama and fervid sentimentality that tends to overwhelm you in the ways Tchaikovsky often does, but without Tchaikovsky‘s class or style. Or logic. Milhaileanu, who also made the well-regarded and moving heart-tugger Train of Life, here paints Filipov as a great conductor who was fired by Communist bureaucrats in the Brezhnev era for (it’s assumed) trying to protect his Jewish musicians. Now Filipov earns his meager living as a janitor at the concert hall, until one day he intercepts an emergency French invitation for a Bolshoi concert, and decides to recruit his old musician friends, to form a fake Bolshoi, get his old Commie nemesis and manager Ivan Gavrilov (Valeriy Barinou) to handle management chores, travel to Paris, hoodwink impresario Duplessis (Francois Berleand) and put on a concert with star soloist Anne-Marie — with whom Filipov has some mysterious past connection.


The Parisian trip is portrayed as a comedy of errors, and that both invigorates and somewhat hurts the film. How, after all, is this imitation Bolshoi going to put on such a great performance without any last rehearsals? I also had trouble with the fact that Filipov was portrayed as a great classic Russian conductor, and also a hater of Prokofiev — a great if sometimes dissonant composer who, after all, was a victim of the Soviet bureaucracy too.


But the actors all play with humor, warmth and power, especially Laurent, Guskov, Miou Miou as Anne-Marie’s helper, and Barinov as Gavrilov, the fallen Brezhnevian bureaucrat and con artist who joins forces with his old time victim to reawaken the glories of the past. “The Concert,” like that fake orchestra, has its rough spots. But the movie, like the musicians,  hits its crescendos, pours out those melodies and delivers in the end. (In Russian, French and English, with English subtitles.)


8 ½ (Four Stars)
Italy; Federico Fellini, 1963

8 ½, Federico Fellini’s 1963 masterpiece about a movie that can’t get made, and about Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni), the writer-director who can’t make it, marked a revolution in the way we thought and wrote about filmmaking — or about the art of cinema, as the film‘s  greatest admirers would now unabashedly prefer.

Guido, a character unmistakably modeled on Fellini himself. is an internationally renowned film auteur, working in the Cinecitta studios and an elegant spa on his new project — a Felliniesque film unmistakably modeled on 8 ½. (That name comes from the number of movies, including episodes and fragments of anthology films, that Fellini had made at that point in his career.)   Guido has sets, actors, an army of technicians, studio time, some very nervous producers and right hand men (Mario Pisu and Guido Alberti)  and a troupe of reporters, paparazzi and one scornful critic-advisor named Daumier (Jean Rougeul) nipping at his heels,  but no completed script.

Instead, he has some fragmentary notes (which Daumier ridicules as the usual “Anselmiesque” egotistical potpourri) and a welter of satirical dreams and childhood memories that keep teasing and tormenting him as he skips from one meeting or screening to the next, trying to dodge questions and evade catastrophe.

Complicating matters further are the presence of both Guido’s wife Luisa (Anouk Aimee) and his mistress Carla (played by Sandra Milo, Fellini’s own longtime lover) and a bevy of attractive women (including Italian horror movie queen Barbara Steele), who keep arousing his libido or filling him with Catholic guilt. Luisa, accompanied by her sarcastic feminist friend Rossella (Rossella Falk) is increasingly fed-up. Carla, a childlike bosomy blonde with a taste for bedroom games and a weak constitution, is shunted aside. And the deadline when shooting must begin or the project cancelled keeps descending on Guido like black cloud swallowing the sunlight of his privileged, precarious life.

8 ½ of course is Fellini‘s version of that familiar nightmare — I’ve had it dozens of times — when we’re plunged into a final exam for which we haven’t studied or a stage play for which we haven’t learned our lines. And it’s pretty much what was happening to Fellini, as he started this movie, for which he also had a script that wasn‘t finished.

That makes 8 ½, in a sense, his most realistic film, the story of his own life and milieu as he lived it in the ‘60s. But it’s also one of his most fanciful and fantastic — a cascade of incredible, lyrical imagery, of  “la dolce vita ” among the moviemakers, of luxurious hotels, healing springs, nocturnal streets, plush screening rooms, and a past full of oceanscapes, churches and De Chirico-like architecture. It was Fellini’s last film in black-and-white, beautifully lit and shot by the legendary Gianni Di Venanzo, who makes the whole film a symphony of sunlight and shadow. The movie is also graced with one of Nino Rota’s finest, most supremely carnivalesque and lilting scores. “I am Guido!” Fellini once famously remarked — and he might well have added “I am 8 ½!”  (In English and Italian, with English subtitles.)  (New 35mm print at Chicago‘s Gene Siskel Center.)

Michael Wilmington
July 29, 2010

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