LOS ANGELES — 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 leaves him and his job is in peril.
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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 Cesars (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. Sacha Baron Cohen later committed to play the buffoon, developing the film 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 franchise 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 playing 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 — a 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.
But as the trio dug into the script — turning the simpler archetypes of the original into more three-dimensional characters — it became clear that a strike by the Writers Guild of America, which most experts had predicted for June, would be called earlier. Much earlier. In November, guild members on both coasts walked off the job. The project went into a freeze. For nearly four months, Guion and Handelman didn't write a word.
The strike finally ended in February 2008. Guion, Handelman and Roach could get back to hammering out the script. All was right with the world.
For a few weeks, anyway.
In March, after a rocky two-year union, DreamWorks and Paramount announced they were splitting. And like many a divorce, a custody battle followed. One of the most contested projects was Schmucks, not least because it came with a big star.
As the months wore on with no resolution, Roach would look himself in the mirror and ask, essentially, "Am I crazy?" There was a surefire hit crying for his direction: Universal was eager to move on Little Fockers, the third installment in Roach's Meet the Parents franchise, and he had to say no, even as the worries on Dinner for Schmucks mounted. "For a long time I was afraid it wasn't going to happen. And I kept thinking, 'I should just jump and do something else,'" he recalls.
After months of horse trading, DreamWorks won the rights to the film, with Paramount retaining the option to co-finance and distribute. In the fall of 2008, Schmucks was back on track. But not for long. As all this was happening, Baron Cohen had quietly slipped off the movie; he and producers couldn't see eye-to-eye on an approach to the story. A film with a star but no financing had now become a film with financing but no star.
Parkes and Roach turned to Carell, who was attracted to the script's mixture of schadenfreude and sympathy. "I loved that it was something funny but also slightly bittersweet and melancholy," he says. He also liked that the Barry character followed in a tradition of classic comedic roles that incorporate subtle human tics. "I'm a fan of Peter Sellers and Alan Arkin, character actors who can do things comedically without ever acknowledging to the audience they're doing anything funny," he says.
Carell would star with Rudd, his Anchorman and The 40-Year-Old Virgin co-star. "I'm sure Sacha would have killed it," Rudd says. "But I loved the idea of doing it with Steve, whom I consider an actor, not just a comic. He'll sacrifice a joke if it isn't necessary to what's human and moving about a character."
Carell was on board, but his timing was tight — with his commitment to NBC's The Office, he had only a handful of months each year in which to make movies. "We had to jump right in," Carell says, recalling the lack of rehearsal time. "I think Jay was a little bit nervous."
As it turns out, going quickly wouldn't be this movie's affliction. The fall of 2008 brought something no one could have foreseen: the credit crisis. DreamWorks had hoped to finance the movie itself, but with lending so tight — and the studio concurrently in protracted negotiations with new financing entity Reliance Big Entertainment — there simply wasn't the available cash. Carell decided to use his hiatus to film Date Night instead.
"Movies involve the pulling together of so much money and talent, it's amazing any film gets made. But you don't expect all of this to happen," Guion says. "And then you really don't expect the real estate market to collapse." Roach couldn't believe it either: It was Used Guys all over again. He had one overarching thought: "I wish I was better at quitting projects," he remembers.
Six months would pass before Paramount — the very studio which had fought with DreamWorks over this movie — decided to come back in to co-finance with the Reliance-funded DreamWorks, and distribute the film too. Paramount also brought in financier Spyglass, which meant the unlikely scenario of three entities financing the movie, a sign that, in these risk-averse times, studios want to hedge their bets on any picture that isn't a franchise.
And so in the fall of 2009, 16 years after Le Diner de Cons debuted on the stage, an American movie began shooting, using the ideas of the original but embroidering in the titular dinner, which wasn't in the French version. "It seems like it's been forever, but in the last two years it's been this blur of activity. The process is so compelling that you don't have a chance to step back," Parkes says. "Now that it's over we can say, 'My Lord, look at what we had to do to get it here.' But you don't feel the pain in retrospect — you hopefully just see a movie you're proud of."
No one looks to moviemaking troubles for lessons; filmmakers will say you simply can't carry the baggage from one film to the next. But those who worked on "Schmucks" say it's impossible to see the movie business in quite the same way again. "Every movie is fragile," Roach says. "But I guess I just pay a little more attention to the fragile quality of getting a movie made these days."