‘Dinner with….’ Not offensive enough?

Paul Rudd and Steve Carell consider questions of taste and intelligence in “Dinner for Schmucks.” (Image courtesy Paramount Pictures)

This is a week for musing on offensiveness. Here is a true story from the world of radio. I know it is true because I was there.

I was doing a piece for National Public Radio. To be honest I can’t remember what it was about, but it did contain a snippet of someone speaking in German. As I worked through the piece with the editor, I felt I should in all good conscience, point out the phrase contained what we in Scotland call sweary words. It was a joke as I recall. Crude but funny

As a result, the editor, following his good conscience, made me take out the piece of tape and use something else. His reasoning is we shouldn’t run the risk of offending someone. (This was in the pre-Bono dropping the F-bomb days, where life was a little simpler and less financially dangerous for broadcasters.) I made the change. It was not as fun, but definitely not crude.

So imagine my surprise a short time later when I heard a snippet in another story, this time done by a US reporter in Scotland, which contained some Scots dialect which was every bit as funny, and possibly more offensive than my German tape. “Ah, but almost no-one will have understood that,” came the response when I pointed out the double standard.

So if a tree swears as it drops in the forest and nobody hears is it still offensive?

I don’t know.

The reason I have been musing about this is because of the confluence of two news items this week. The first is the release of “Dinner for Schmucks” the new Steve Carell Paul Rudd vehicle. The second is the death (I think he would have hated the word ‘passing,’) of cartoonist John Callahan.

“Dinner for Schmucks” which is based on “The Dinner Game” a French movie from 1998, has Rudd playing Tim an ambitious young executive eager to find his way upwards in the cut-throat financial firm where he works. He learns to succeed he has to bring someone outlandish to a private dinner where the other execs, with their own misfits in tow, will get an evening’s enjoyment out of ridiculing the luckless guests.

It’s a creepy idea, about which Tim has qualms, particularly after his girlfriend informs him she finds it repugnant. However when Tim literally runs into Barry (he hits him with his Porsche whilst texting and talking on the phone at the same time) he can’t resist. Barry (Carell) makes sentimental dioramas out of stuffed mice, posed to replicate great works of art, or people of significance in his life. Tim invites Barry to the dinner, launching a series of unfortunate encounters which allow Barry to burrow like a tick into Tim’s life, threatening his relationship, his job, and (horrors!) his Porsche.

Unfortunately for the film it’s clear Tim believes he deserves everything he gets. We feel sorry for him, when really we should be hating him. Yes, the dinner for idiots is an offensive premise, but if you are going to do it, go for the gusto.

This was something John Callahan understood. A quadriplegic as a result of a car crash he drew devilishly funny cartoons which set out to smash any and all ideas of political correctness. He would have had little time for this dinner.

A lot has been made of how much of “Dinner” was improvised. And there are moments of comedy. Jemaine Clement (“Flight of the Concords”) and David Walliams (“Little Britain”) bring some edge to their characters, as does Steve Carell on occasion. Yet much of the film seems to have become movie mush through comedy by committee.

The sad thing is the most offensive thing about the film may be its title, which people with a little yiddish will recognize as having a couple of meanings. But perhaps “almost no-one will have understood that.”

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