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When the 'S' on His Chest Is Not for 'Superman'

July 29, 2010 By:
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It's a menu of "Schmucks," as Barry (Steve Carell, left) and his newfound friend, Tim (Paul Rudd), examine Barry's storybook life in "Dinner for Schmucks," opening July 30. Photos by Merie Weismiller Wallace
"Dinner for Schmucks"? "Oh, a film about the family hour," reacts a Jewish captain of industry who gets stripped of his stripes and decommissioned/degraded to private parts as soon as he steps over the threshold of his home.

There's nothing Jewish about "Dinner for Schmucks," opening July 30, except the title -- but it is a title that has produced enmity among producers in Hollywood who probably wish they had thought of it first.

And while the Jewish captain of industry cited above may be mythical -- although it may be what every Jewish titan feels until he gets home and is treated like the Titanic -- it is probably what he is thinking.

As the wise man once said: "I may not know art, but I know a schmuck when I see one."

And so, apparently, does Jay Roach.

Roach, who seems to have a predilection for priapic titles -- he directed "Meet the Fockers" -- is serving up his "Dinner for Schmucks" à la carte blanche -- an artless yet arguably entertaining evening of a food fight for fools based on the French "Le Dîner de Cons" ("Dinner for Idiots/Fools").

Which personifies the problem: A house is not a home and a fool is not a schmuck, but a home can be a house and a schmuck a fool.

But would the film "Ship of Fools" have meant the same had it sailed into the sunset as "Ship of Schmucks"?

Roach -- and that's a name to reckon with; but that's a different story -- has broken ground with the phallic-flick, but not in its slam-bang buffoonery of a plot in which an ambitious if amiable executive is invited to his boss' house for a special dinner, in which each guest must bring a foil of a fool, who, without his actually knowing it, will be made fun of.

Winner takes home a trophy as part of this sadistic salute that even the Marquis de Sade would be saddened by.

But it is the title that titillates, and here, Roach has broached a topic that lunges at linguistics: is the "S" word -- with its Yiddish derivation -- a curse word that shouldn't be bandied about in public let alone at the "Dinner" hour? (Well, almost two hours.)

It is all part of the linguistic putz-le: And Roach has ridden it all the way to Main Street with this film, the first to use the word in a title, albeit not the first in its script.

Recall that scene in "Goodbye, Columbus" (1969), the film adaptation of the Philip Roth novella in which the stereotypically Jewish father, portrayed by Jack Klugman, turns to his daughter's date and declares, "You think I'm a schmuck, don't you?"

To which the audience -- mainly Jews, never known to talk back to a movie screen -- answered with a collective positive shrug of the shoulders as only they could.

What kind of a filmmaker would do that? As for his creds: Did Roach graduate a schlepper from Schmuck University? (And, yes, there is one; as with everything else in life, there is also a Web site for potential schmucks at: www.schmucku.com.)

Actually, what's the harm in such a title? Roy Smiles wondered himself when it came to titling his 1992 play about the fictitious meeting between Lenny Bruce and Groucho Marx, and settled on "Schmucks."

In London, the Brit explained that the word only means a fool; the body-part reference does not apply.

Who's fooling who?

Here, in this country, it takes on a much more sordid, slap-in-the-face role.

Which is why Roach may have finally nailed down the proper definition after all -- defining it, however, not in the way unsuspecting movie-goers at first think, but in a final scene that proves that the man has hit it right on the head.

With current company excepted: Jay, I have known schmucks; I have worked with schmucks.

You, Jay, are no schmuck.

Okay, a Kuni Leml. Maybe.

But no schmuck. 

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