Movie stills courtesy of Dreamworks Pictures/Spyglass Entertainment
The other day while watching “America’s Got Talent” with my children—one of the few shows on TV that a parent doesn’t have to worry about grabbing for the remote control when topics get too “hot and heavy”—I heard the audience guffaw at a joke that I found mildly amusing. The contestant—an aspiring comic who had the deadpan delivery of Emo Philips and the eyeliner/dark look of an emo teenager—mentioned how he still sleeps with stuffed animals. Then he paused, and delivered the punch line: “I love taxidermy.”
What was interesting to me was that the audience was already chortling when he admitted that he, a grown man, bedded down with stuffed toys. Yep, this was not an arctophile crowd by any means. The big payoff laugh came with the taxidermy allusion. Yes, the idea of enjoying taxidermy, especially to the point of cuddling with it, is a tad creepy. Like hot dogs and all kinds of sausages, it’s the sort of finished piece that you don’t want to watch being made. It’s a mystery better left unexplored.
This does sound like an awful diversion, one that places an artist in the ranks of Hannibal Lecter, Jeffrey Dahmer, or Norman Bates. The fictional Bates, the mopey motel owner in “Psycho,” is portrayed as a taxidermist. He woefully tells his pretty inn guest Janet Leigh that “hobbies are meant to pass the time, not fill it.” She barely listens to him as her eyes are affixed on the birds of prey that he has presumably killed, stuffed, and mounted. Taxidermy is indeed a pastime that causes most people to have a negative reaction. Its practitioners are almost always portrayed as oddballs and eccentrics, and that’s definitely the case in 2010’s “Dinner for Schmucks.” This comedy co-stars Steve Carell, at his most nerdy, and Paul Rudd, at his most uptight. The movie is being aired frequently on HBO this month, and is available for On Demand viewing on its HBO Now and Go services. The film is an American version of a hit French farce called “Le Dîner de Cons” (“The Dinner Game”). It revolves around a young man who fears being stuck in a midlevel role and what he is willing to sacrifice to move up the corporate ladder of success. In this slapstick movie, Rudd is prepared to trade in his soul and his humanity for a seat at the big-boy conference table. It’s actually quite sad.
In order to jockey into a higher-paying position, Rudd agrees to participate in his boss’s sick, twisted weekend games. Namely, attending a dinner for handpicked business protégés who are, likewise, heartless and amoral. The attendees are urged to bring idiots to the meal, and the person who brings the most stupid, most annoying, and most irksome party guest wins a shot at corporate advancement. Sounds like a hellish place to work, doesn’t it? Paul Rudd, who has graduated to playing leading man and superhero roles, portrays the employee who wants a larger office and a bigger paycheck. Though he has doubts about finding and then using a person as a prop, he agrees to play the game. His cold, aloof boss fancies himself a “collector,” and these invited weirdos are his collection. Rudd has to find someone who will impress his boss by being blithely ignorant of being ridiculed and will remain ignorant even when it is spelled out for him. Enter Steve Carell.
Having earned millions and millions of dollars by embodying men who are a bit strange (Michael in “The Office”) and socially awkward (“The 40-Year-Old Virgin”), Carell is the ideal actor to immerse himself in this role. In “Dinner for Schmucks,” Carell plays an IRS worker who pushes paper for a living, but who aspires to be an artist. His medium is taxidermy, and his critters are mice that he finds dead on the side of the road, in meadows, and from labs that he wants to give a second life to. Carell, wearing an orange fright wig and a huge pair of Coke-bottle lenses, plays his character like a man who has been beaten down by life. His only source of joy and comfort is the elaborate undertaking of his mouse displays. He even jokingly calls them his “mousterpieces.”
Through the course of the movie, we see the Carell character’s handiwork. He’s transformed mice into the Last Supper, Mona Lisa, Ben Franklin, the Wright Brothers, and even heartbreaking step-by-step versions of his own marriage’s dissolution and divorce. Mistakenly believing that he’s been befriended by the Rudd character, this dolt is excited to attend a dinner party where he can showcase his accomplishments. We, the viewers, grow horrified as his dinner appointment tick-tocks closer and closer.
The vignettes that are shown in this movie are phenomenal. They were all made by three exceptionally talented brothers: Charles, Stephen, and Edward Chiodo. Special-effects creators, the Chiodo brothers fashioned more than 100 mouse dioramas for the film, and—spoiler alert—the mice they posed, dressed, and worked with were not real mice at all. Stephen Chiodo sculpted the mice because he found actual deceased mice to be rather “icky and creepy looking.” Knowing that the Steve Carell character had to gain the audience’s sympathy and empathy—even as we know he’s dressing up dead rodents—the Chiodo brothers worked to make the mice a little more man-like than mouse-like.
According to an interview they had with the Los Angeles Times, Stephen Chiodo told the reporter: “There’s nothing adorable or approachable about them. And because this is really a window into Steve Carell’s character in the film, they had to be engaging, empathetic and sort of cute. I sculpted the mice, and in the first attempts, we tried to do it realistically, and it just didn’t work. So we started talking. ‘We’ll make their eyes bigger. Let’s make their arms and legs a little longer. Let’s give them shoulders so they can wear jackets.’ And they became a little anthropomorphic, but they still are mice. And I think that’s part of their success.”
Indeed, the mice are a focal part of the film, and Carell’s character is cringe-inducingly inarticulate when he tries to verbalize his feelings. (He mistakenly truncates famous quotes and misremembers lyrics, reciting John Lennon’s “Imagine” as “You might say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not.” Paul Rudd has to inform him that he’s left off “the only one,” giving the lyric a whole new significance.)
It’s an interesting movie to watch from the perspective of being a collector and/or a soft-art professional. Hailing from a niche market and a hobby that continues to be judged unfairly and dismissed as child’s play, we all know what it feels like to be regarded wrongly and unjustly. We know the hard work that goes into producing ursine artwork and plush pals. We don’t want to have our life’s work and passion overlooked and underappreciated.
The takeaway from “Dinner for Schmucks” is that the host and his money-grubbing cohorts are actually the schmucks. They are the idiots, the cynics who know the cost of everything and the value of nothing—as Oscar Wilde once famously said. Since it is a Hollywood film, the movie has a happy ending, with the good being rightfully elevated and the evil receiving their just comeuppance. (That’s also a nod to Wilde, who said that’s how you know a story is fiction: the good get rewarded and the bad get punished.)
We the viewers, the ones with a Plush Life background, knew from the moment it began that the Carell character was not a dolt, was not an idiot, was not a schmuck. Even though the Beatles’ “Fool on the Hill” accompanies his initial appearance in the flick, he really is much more a dreamer in the Lennon mold. His character might not be able to quote the song, but that doesn’t stop him from living it.