Thursday, August 05, 2010

Let the Schmucks speak

The writers for Dinner for Schmucks talked recently about the movie.
“’Schmuck’ is a funny word,” said Michael Handelman, co-screenwriter of “Dinner for Schmucks.”

“It’s one of those very satisfying words to say,” added co-screenwriter David Guion.[...]

At the Beverly Hilton, the conversation veered from their respective Midwestern childhoods (Guion hails from Chicago; Handelman from Milwaukee); to meeting each other in a Yale University improvisational troupe; to performing improv together in Manhattan (after Handelman earned a masters in philosophy from the University of Pittsburgh); to penning major Hollywood comedies. The writers also riffed on the nature of Jewish comedy and of course, “Dinner for Schmucks.”

Naomi Pfefferman: “Dinner for Schmucks” must be the first major studio film ever to have the word, “schmuck” in the title—which of course traditionally is a naughty word in Yiddish. How did that come about?

Michael Handelman: Nobody seems to know exactly where the title came from— it was already attached before we came on board. But one thing we’ve talked about is the fact that “schmuck,” at least the way it’s used today, can mean both “idiot” and “jerk.” The double meaning is quite appropriate because in our film, it’s jerks inviting idiots to dinner. So obvious question is, ‘Who are the schmucks?’”

David Guion: I don’t know if it’s ever decided who the real schmucks are. But the film is about questioning these labels that we put on people. We want audiences to be able to see the humanity in these so-called schmucks who are invited to dinner, and particularly in [Steve Carell’s] Barry.[...]

NP: Are either of you members of the Tribe?

MH: My father is Jewish – he was a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee—but we didn’t really practice, growing up. Yet I feel like Jewish humor definitely shaped my [comic] sensibility.

DG: Mine as well – even though my family isn’t Jewish. We were Huguenots [French Protestants who were persecuted by the Catholic majority]. The Guions were kicked out of France a long time ago. They have a centuries-old memory of being persecuted.

MH: I certainly wasn’t raised practicing any religion, but I think the Midwest is a relentlessly polite place, and I was definitely aware that my dad grew up in New York and was Jewish. He had a much more cutting and wry sense of humor than tended to be around, growing up in Milwaukee, and I was always very struck by that and influenced by it: The guy who will speak the truth, whatever the social cost. That’s something Woody Allen does, too, and I tend to think of it coming out of a certain Jewish tradition.

NP: Do you associate filmmakers such as Woody Allen and Mel Brooks with Jewish humor?

MH: I was probably a little bit more aware that they were Jewish. Although my family was sort of militantly anti-religious, I definitely thought of myself as a Jew growing up—maybe just because it seemed cooler than being a Catholic. So I was aware of those [filmmakers using] Jewish humor and that was maybe part of what attracted me to them.
Interestly, the movie's director, Jay Roach, is a member of the tribe.
“I love fear as a motor for comedy,” director Jay Roach said. “The nightmare of becoming the architect of your own humiliation rings true to me.”

This propensity for self-doubt isn’t what one might expect from Roach, 53, one of the top comedy directors in Hollywood, who has collaborated with Mike Myers and Ben Stiller to create the “Austin Powers” and “Meet the Parents” franchises, and whose “Dinner for Schmucks,” starring Paul Rudd and Steve Carell, opens July 30.

Yet, at the Beverly Hilton recently, Roach said he can relate to the anxiety and “identity crises” experienced by some of his own characters. As evidence, he cited the scene from “Annie Hall” in which the iconicly Jewish Woody Allen imagines himself as a Chasid in the eyes of his lover’s WASPy family: “I was the reverse of Woody Allen in ‘Annie Hall,’ ” Roach said. A convert to Judaism, he was raised Southern Baptist in Albuquerque, N.M., where his father worked for the military, and two of his regular childhood activities were hunting and fishing.

Roach remembers being at dinner with the erudite Jewish family of his future wife, Susanna Hoffs of the rock group the Bangles: “I imagined them looking at me, and I had a coonskin cap on — the hick WASP. I just didn’t think I was qualified for their level of sophistication,” he said.

Roach need not have worried — his future in-laws were as accepting as Stiller’s were critical in “Meet the Parents.” Yet he felt like a “total misfit.”

“I loved my wife, and I really loved her family, and so I wanted to impress them. I always was coming up with jokes, or digging up knowledge about psychology and just overcompensating. ... My father-in-law is a shrink, absolutely the least judgmental guy of all time.”[...]

The moral crisis at the heart of “Dinner for Schmucks” came off as the inspiration for its surprising title, as the comedy is the first major studio title to feature that traditionally naughty Yiddish word. Billboards with the phrase “Get Schmucked” have been placed all over Los Angeles, including significantly Jewish areas. Rudd, who is the son of British Jews, acknowledged that “schmuck” means “penis” in the mama loshen (literally, mother tongue): “I know there are some people who might [have taken] offense,” he said of remarks in the blogosphere, “but it wouldn’t even have crossed my mind that somebody might find this offensive.” His own grandfather used to call him “schmuck” or a “putz,” he said. “But it seems to me that most people use the word nowadays in the sense of: ‘Don’t be a fool’ or ‘Don’t be a jerk’ — as in, ‘Stop acting like a schmuck.’ ”

Roach said the title works because of schmuck’s more casual meaning of “jerk” or “idiot,” which could refer to each of the protagonists at different points in the movie. “The question becomes, “Who really is the ‘schmuck’?” he said. This, too, was the premise of the original French film, in which Veber, who is half Armenian and half Jewish, skewers the snobbishness of his wealthy characters and promotes a revenge of the downtrodden ones.

Roach also has an affinity for the underdog. “I was not in any stretch of the imagination smart enough to go to Stanford — I always assumed I got in on some kind of regional affirmative action,” he said of his undergraduate years. “But, again, I just overcompensated and found a way, at first, to just survive, and eventually I did sort of thrive there.”

Roach had completed USC’s graduate film program when, while working at his first television writing job on “Space Rangers,” his producer kept trying to fix him up with Hoffs.[...]

Roach converted to Judaism before their wedding in 1993 at Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel; the marriage ceremony was officiated by Hoff’s grandfather and uncle, both rabbis. “I took it seriously,” he said of his conversion studies. “I found it so moving and meaningful.” (The couple’s two children, now 11 and 15, are being raised Jewish.) “There is something about my wife’s approach to life that I related to: being vigilant, which comes from previsualizing disaster almost all the time,” he added with a laugh. “I think that’s universal — we’re all in this pickle — but I think one of the great things about my wife, and Jews in general, is that there’s more openness about it; it’s vocalized more.”

Roach was expectedly vigilant when his friend, actor and comedian Myers, refused to do the first “Austin Powers” film without him, although Roach had previously directed only modest films; as it turned out, “Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery” was an enormous critical and box office hit and placed Roach squarely on Hollywood’s A-list.

Then came Roach’s collaboration with Stiller, whose turn as a male nurse with formidable non-Jewish in-laws propelled the comic angst in “Meet the Parents” and “Meet the Fockers.” “I look at those films as my own worst nightmare, whenever I would imagine my fear of being inadequate for my wife and her family,” said Roach, who will produce the next installment in the series, “Little Fockers.”
Turning it over to movie's roundtable...
Naomi Pfefferman: So Paul, do you have any elderly Jewish relatives who raised eyebrows about the use of the word, “schmuck?” in the film’s title?

Paul Rudd: Well, go right to the Jew (laughs). You know I was in shul…(joking) Actually, no, my grandfather used to call me a “schmuck” and a “putz.”

NP: Can you tell us what “schmuck” means in Yiddish?

PR: (wryly) It means “penis” right—is that what you’re looking for?...How about “putz?” I remember growing up saying “Ah, gosh, ‘putz’ is such a funny word. I would use it like, ‘Oh, don’t be a putz’— but then I thought ‘putz’ meant an ‘idiot.’ And I remember my dad saying, ‘Well, you know, actually, a ‘putz’ is a ‘penis.’ What’s up with all the [Yiddish] words, by the way, for penis?

David Guion (the film’s co-screenwriter with Michael Handelman): It’s like Eskimos have 200 words for snow.

PR: But it always took on I think not so much specificity as it does kind of a general, “Oh, you’re being an idiot, you’re being stupid – quit acting like a schmuck.” So it was strange, being Jewish—and I know there are some people who have taken offense that we called this “Dinner for Schmucks,” because I’ve read [some blog items exploring this]. But it wouldn’t even have crossed my mind that somebody might find it offensive, because I just never associated it, being Jewish, with being offensive.

Ron Livingston (actor): Also, “Dinner for Weiners” didn’t sound quite right.

NP: Will the title, as they say, play in Peoria?

Jay Roach: I think so…. For me it’s kind of an ideal word for what the story is about, because it does in modern usage have two meanings of “Don’t be a schmuck,” as in, “Don’t be a jerk,” which is what Paul Rudd’s character is going through, and “Don’t be an idiot,” which you can assume is what Steve Carell’s going through. And then in the end it sort of switches, because you find out that Paul’s character is the one who’s living a deluded kind of reality and Steve’s character is actually much wiser than he is. So it’s a funny word to say but it also resonates across what the two characters are about.

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