GET SE­RI­OUS ABOUT BE­ING FUNNY

Di­rec­tor brings a lot of ex­pe­ri­ence to the ta­ble, but he still gets ner­vous

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Charles Ealy Amer­i­can-States­man Staff

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 … 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 “Aus- tin 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.”

Steve Carell stars as Barry, a man who col­lects dead mice, pre­serves them and uses them to cre­ate dio­ra­mas in ‘Din­ner for Schmucks,’ a com­edy by di­rec­tor Jay Roach, top photo, that opens Fri­day.

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.’

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