(On TV, October 2013) My memories of the original French film Le Diner de Cons being positive but distant, I found this Americanized remake to be duller but still relatively amusing. Sure, its lead character isn’t as morally corrupt as in the original, but let’s face it: American audiences would much rather see a good-guy protagonist unencumbered with moral complications than struggle with nuance in a comedy aimed at the broadest possible public. The basic plot remains the same as in the original, as high-society types meet regularly to showcase their “idiots” and one said idiot has devastating repercussions on the protagonist’s life. Beyond that, the details vary quite a bit. Veteran filmmaker Jay Roach’s direction is professionally unobtrusive, his camera leaving all the fun to the actors where it belongs. As such, Dinner for Schmucks isn’t too bad, even if much of the film’s strengths come in meeting a variety of absurdly off-beat secondary characters. Paul Rudd is his usual everyman straight-guy, while Steve Carrell gets to play sweetly dumb. Meanwhile, the best moments go to a few comedians making the most of their screen time: Jemaine Clement as an artist unhinged by self-confidence, Zach Galifianakis as a deluded-mentalist IRS supervisor and Lucy Punch as an insatiable stalker. It’s not a deep or meaningful film, but it’s ridiculous enough to earn a few laughs, and that’s all it’s supposed to be. Special mention for “lovely stuff you can only see in big-budget movies” goes to the charming mouse dioramas created by the Chiodo Brothers.
(In theaters, July 2011) R-rated comedies often seem to live in a different universe than the rest of comedies, and one of their chief characteristic is how much irreverence they can throw at institutions and beliefs that are otherwise untouchable. Here, nothing less than the sacrosanct image of the teacher as a virtuous force is under full attack with Cameron Diaz’s unhinged portrait of a strikingly inappropriate junior-high teacher. Drugs, embezzlement, thievery, coarse language and wanton seduction are all part of her repertoire, and if nothing else, Bad Teacher provides Diaz with a plum comic opportunity. Diaz isn’t the only good actor in the mix: Lucy Punch is a revelation as the neurotic Amy Squirrel, while Jason Segel is unexpectedly sympathetic in an everyman role and Justin Timberlake takes a few risks with a dweebish performance. Too bad, then, that it’s handled so unevenly: The script doesn’t really start to click until its second half (where characters are forced to act against their nature in the hope of gaining something), and the touchy balance between portraying an offensive character entertainingly is sometimes in doubt. It’s almost, yes, as if Hollywood tried to soften the edges of an edgier kind of comedy; in the subgenre, Bad Santa will still remain a reference. Meanwhile, the end result of this film is average, although individual moments stand out as being better than their sum. Some people will be offended; the biggest problem with Bad Teacher, however, is that it doesn’t give nearly enough laughs to those who are willing to play along.