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Comedy terrifies 'Dinner for Schmucks' director Jay Roach

Charles Ealy
Jay Roach, left, on the set with actors Paul Rudd, center, and Steve Carell, says he wanted to combine elements of French and American comedies in 'Dinner for Schmucks.'

Director Jay Roach lives dangerously.

As he and many other directors know, comedy is the most terrifying genre. If the audience doesn't laugh, you've failed. Quite simple; no wiggle room.

"It's a terrifying way of (looking at comedy), and it's completely accurate," says Roach, who has made such box-office hits as "Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery," "Meet the Parents" and "Meet the Fockers."

"I've lost so much sleep over my movies that I've gotten really sick," he says in a telephone interview from California. "There's really no recipe for getting laughs. You have to start from scratch. You either bake a cake or end up with a big pile of goo."

So if it's so stressful, why keep specializing in comedies?

"When things work out on opening night, when the audience keeps laughing and I'm there watching, it's so fulfilling. It's a love fest," he says. "As neurosis-inducing as comedy is, I'm definitely hooked."

Roach likely will be a bundle of neuroses this week, when his latest comedy, "Dinner for Schmucks," opens nationwide on Friday.

Starring Paul Rudd and Steve Carell, the movie takes big risks and has a seemingly brutal storyline. Employees at a private equity firm must compete with each other by picking the biggest idiot they can find and bringing that person to a dinner party at the boss' mansion. But the idiots must be kept in the dark about the competition.

Paul Rudd's character, financial analyst Tim Conrad, has a lot more riding on the dinner than the average guest. If he can find the best moron, then he will get a huge promotion and a coveted office. Not having ascended to total jerk-dom, however, he sees the cruelty of the game and reluctantly discusses it with his girlfriend Julie (Stephanie Szostak). She's horrified.

But Tim literally runs into what seems to be idiocy personified while driving his Porsche through L.A. He hits a buck-toothed guy named Barry (Carell), who has dashed into oncoming traffic to retrieve a dead mouse before it gets squished. As it turns out, Barry collects dead mice, all of whom undergo elaborate taxidermy and become dressed-up little characters in multiple dioramas in his garage. Barry thinks he's giving the poor mice new life.

While making sure Barry is OK after the accident, Tim begins to see the schlub as a ticket to riches. And when he invites Barry to dinner, the lonely man thinks he has finally found a friend.

In "Dinner," Roach sees Barry as the attractive character — not Tim, a clean-cut up-and-comer who lives in a swanky apartment and has a beautiful girlfriend.

"I like the notion of the character that Steve plays and how he copes with pain," Roach says. (It turns out that Barry has built mice-filled dioramas idealizing moments in a former, failed romantic relationship. Think two casually dressed mice riding on a Ferris wheel or holding hands in a park.)

"Buried underneath Barry's outward weirdness is this usefulness and eagerness to find a friend, even though he's really not equipped for a social relationship," Roach says. "From an outsider's point of view, he would be misjudged as a loser, but he has an off-center wisdom, and that's what attracted me to the story. It cheers me up to see how people cope with pain in ironic ways."

So it's no surprise when Roach says that one of his favorite comedies is 1971's "Harold and Maude," starring Ruth Gordon as an anarchic old lady and Bud Cort as a death-obsessed 20-year-old who finds love amid the looniness.

" 'Harold and Maude' is the perfect example of people who come up with idiosyncratic coping strategies when they're dealing with pain," Roach says.

But Roach also acknowledges an even bigger debt to French comedy director Francis Veber, whose most famous film is "La Cage aux Folles," which served as inspiration for "Meet the Parents." In fact, Roach's "Dinner" is based on Veber's 1998 movie, "Le Dîner de Cons" ("The Dinner Game"), in which a bumbling man's actions force another character to become more human.

"I've studied a lot of French farce, and Veber's films in particular," says Roach. "The French have faith in dialogue and clash of character as the engines for comedy. I think our comedies (in the States) are often derived from physical comedy traditions, the Chaplins and Keatons. What I hoped to do (with 'Dinner') was to combine farce with misapprehensions of the situations, with classic French predicaments. But in the third act (the dinner scene), I switch \u2026 to a mixture of conceptual and physical comedy."

Roach says he didn't try to merely remake the Veber film. "I tried to riff off of it. The original is a two-act play that was transformed into a film. I thought it would be unsatisfying not to put on the third act and deliver the dinner, which didn't happen in the first film.

"By staging the third act, I let Tim undergo a bit more of a transformation, pulling him back before he goes off into the business world. I decided to make his character a little more redeemable."

Dinner scenes, of course, have become the focal point of comedy in such Roach films as "Meet the Parents" and "Austin Powers."

"It's difficult in stories to keep people together when they don't like each other," he says. "And there's nothing like a table to handcuff people in a circle. They can't jump up. There's suspense to who's going to say the wrong thing."

The final act in "Dinner" took two weeks to film, Roach says. "There are 16 people. So you have to play the scene from each person's point of view."

Roach also had to provide quick backstories for the competing guests, including a woman who channels the thoughts of dead pets; a blind swordsman; and an IRS worker who thinks he can control minds.

Oddly enough, the dead mice account for much of the life — and humor — in "Dinner."

"In the original film, there were toothpick sculptures. But I thought taxidermy would be more funny-weird creepy," Roach says. "I thought it would be wonderful to have a character who took little creatures and gave them a second life, as Barry puts it."

Roach is quick to point out, however, that the mice in "Dinner" aren't real. They were the elaborate constructions of the Chiodo Brothers, a three-member team specializing in miniatures for Hollywood.

"I started drawing (the dioramas) with a storyboard artist," Roach says, "and we handed those off to the Chiodo Brothers. They're workshop nerds who put little tiny hairs on little tiny bodies. And they made the mice into works of art. They may look very real, but they're all handmade."

In Barry's big moment at the dinner, he presents what he calls his "Tower of Dreamers," stacking several mice-filled dioramas on top of each other, each illustrating a historically mangled moment from the past. "It's comedy, but it has so much heart," Roach says.

Roach himself is a bit of a dreamer. But he probably won't be sleeping much this weekend as he waits for the audience's verdict on "Dinner."

cealy@statesman.com; 445-3931

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Jay Roach

Age: 53

Hometown: Albuquerque, N.M., but spent lots of time in West Texas while growing up.

Family: Married to Susanna Hoffs, 2 children.

Education: Undergraduate at Stanford University; also graduated from the University of Southern California School of Cinema-Television.