“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.”
“Dinner for Schmucks” is a different kind of riff on not fitting in. Inspired by French director Francis Veber’s “Le Dîner de Cons” (which roughly translates as “Dinner for Bloody Idiots”), Roach’s adaptation revolves around an ambitious financial analyst, Tim (Rudd), whose promotion hinges on participating in a cruel game: his boss’s “dinner for idiots.” Each guest is required to invite the stupidest person he can find for an evening of subtle ridicule; initially Tim’s conscience kicks in. “That’s messed up,” he says. But then he chances to meet an eccentric amateur taxidermist, Barry (Carell), who seems too perfect a dunce to pass up. As Barry proceeds to wreak havoc on Tim’s life — and reveals an underlying sweet nature — Tim is thrown into a dilemma about whether to go through with the nefarious dinner. “He is having that identity panic,” Roach said. “He could get completely caught up in his materialistic goals or get in touch with his better self.
“Some of my favorite characters are people in jeopardy who are just trying to cope,” Roach said. “I like psychological jeopardy. I can handle physical danger, but I just can’t handle emotional fragility, or insecurity, or that identity panic of ‘Who am I? What am I doing? I’m screwing this up, too.’ ”
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.
“I was not interested in meeting her, actually. I felt it was a joke, like, ‘Why are you punking me?’ ” he said. “She was a rock star and, at the time, I was driving this 1973 VW van that would catch on fire if I didn’t drive it at the right speed, and I had no money.” Finally, Roach was persuaded to attend a gathering that included Hoffs; he arrived before the allotted hour because, as he put it, “I’m a worrier,” and found that Hoffs, too, was early because she also tended to eschew being late.
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.”
He describes “Meet the Parents” as “almost like a French farce — it did very well in France” — and cites his love for that genre as a force that drew him to “Dinner for Schmucks,” which is based on Veber’s actual French farce.
The French filmmaker’s advice to Roach was to do something radically different from the original: “American comedies tend to have moments where, perhaps, you’re playing up a character’s sweetness or goodness,” said David Guion, who wrote the script with Michael Handelman. “We loved that [Carell’s character] was somebody whom the rest of the world looked at as a loser and a weirdo who was actually the most beautiful, poetic, wise person in the room.”
Which meant that the writers sometimes delivered “a bit of schmaltz — another great Yiddish world,” Handelman said. “But we’d deliver that schmaltz in such a way that it tweaks into comically weird territory.”
“Dinner for Schmucks,” Roach said, involves a clash of mismatched delusions. “But Tim’s idea that materialism is the answer is the real delusion, so he turns out to be the real idiot, the real ‘schmuck.’ ”
For a Q-and-A with the screenwriters, visit this story at jewishjournal.com