Also in Slate, Tom Shone reviews Dinner With Schmucks.
Dinner for Schmucks, which opens this Friday, is uncharted territory for Paul Rudd. Fifteen years after his breakthrough role in Clueless, Rudd finally gets to headline (along with Steve Carell) a big-budget summer comedy. It's the next logical step up in Rudd's gradual ascension. In 2008, he reached Hollywood leading-man status, though in more modest studio movies: the quickly forgotten Over Her Dead Body, with Eva Longoria, and the so-so Role Models. In 2009 came I Love You, Man, another tired entry in the bromantic canon. With its midsummer slot and relentless publicity campaign, Dinner for Schmucks is poised to be his biggest opener yet. And later this year comes a call-up to prestige-picture territory, with a starring role in James L. Brooks' new film, Everything You've Got, due in the middle of Oscar season.
Rudd's rise is well-deserved and, for those who've been following his career, hardly unexpected. For the last decade, he has toiled in the background as a supporting character in big hits and popped up in unseen indie comedies (if you haven't yet, see The Chateau for a peerless Rudd performance), always distinguishing himself as an adroit and funny presence. There have also been cameos in cult TV series, hilarious talk show appearances, and random Internet doodles. It all adds up a body of work that is one of the funniest—and most underrated—in recent American comedy.
But his has been a split comedic persona. Most Rudd aficionados discovered him in the context of comedies that were unhinged, even surreal. In those performances—in Wet Hot American Summer and Anchorman, especially—Rudd inhabited outlandish characters and trafficked in oddball humor, working with material far more adventurous than in his latest multiplex forays. There was a sense of detachment, too, a winking knowingness: When Rudd engaged in a round of boys-will-be-boys trash talk with the Channel 4 news team in Anchorman, the pathetic locker-room one-upmanship of insecure guys—rather than the trash talk itself—was the joke. Compare that with the Seth Rogens and Jonah Hills, who, while funny in their own way, have sensibilities that seem more prosaic: When they tell a dick joke, it's the joke, not what's behind it, that gets the laugh. Cerebral and detached, Rudd is an altogether more original comedian, blending a quick wit with a conceptual bent.
But as he has gained mainstream success, the parts have started to conform to his good looks. Rudd, an absurdist at heart, keeps showing up in roles that ask him to tamp down his instincts and play the buddy, the boyfriend, the husband. The last two movies in which he's been a lead, Role Models and I Love You, Man, had their moments but were finally exhausted retreads that played it safe, pushing Rudd deeper into conventionality. Dinner for Schmucks doesn't look any more promising for Rudd, as he plays the straight man to Carell's buffoon. On the brink of being a star, Rudd may also be in danger of turning into that most boring of things: the relatable lead.
It wasn't always thus. Rudd's comic talent first became apparent in 2001's Wet Hot American Summer. Made by the folks behind the MTV sketch comedy show The State, the movie affectionately spoofs '80s pop culture. But the send-up of summer camp movies is little more than a stage for a Python-esque revue, an unruly mix of the random and the profane. Now a cult item—and the movie's really too strange to ever capture anything but a cult—Wet Hot American Summer featured a stellar array of then-unknowns: Amy Poehler, Elizabeth Banks, Bradley Cooper.
And, of course, there was Rudd, who stole every scene he was in as Andy, the sleazeball camp counselor. In Rudd's hands, Andy becomes the biggest asshole you knew in high school, fearlessly amped up to 11. Playing the guy who gets the hot girl—and who throws her away just because he can—Rudd pushes past believability into hysterical hyperbole, the obnoxious bad boy in quotes. In the middle of a make-out session, Andy suddenly pulls away and accuses the girl of "suffocating" him—then goes on to scratch his behind extravagantly. ("My butt itches," he remarks, peevishly.) Making out with another girl, he breaks off, sneering, "You taste like a burger. I don't like you anymore." But it's his aria of exasperation, a temper tantrum in the camp cafeteria, that has become one of the movie's best-remembered scenes:
Wet Hot American Summer was barely seen at the time, but it won a following in comedy circles. According to Rudd, the movie helped him land a role in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. Produced by Judd Apatow before the name became a brand, Anchorman remains the funniest movie from the Apatow crew. As with Wet Hot American Summer, it ostensibly skewered a cultural epoch—this time the misogynist '70s—but was really more interested in collecting bits of anarchic business. In contention for the most quoted comedy of the aughts, Anchorman featured a few performers in peak form: star Will Ferrell, then-minor player Steve Carell (whose turn borders on dada), and Rudd. As sleazy reporter (notice a pattern?) Brian Fantana, Rudd dons a ridiculous moustache and does his spin on insufferable machismo. Bouncing off Ferrell and Carell at their nonsensical best, Rudd is completely at home:
But even as he was showing himself to be a brilliant improviser with a subversive streak, Rudd was also taking roles of a blander sort. From 2002-04, he appeared in that apotheosis of vanilla comedy, Friends, as Lisa Kudrow's boyfriend. ("Creatively, not the most fulfilling job," he said of the experience.) The Apatow connection from Anchorman yielded roles in The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up. Both movies take place in a recognizable world. In the former, Rudd was David, a member of the crew that tries to get Carell's Andy laid; in the latter, he was Pete, a put-upon family man. The characters were relatively bland, and with the exception of a very funny lysergic interlude in Vegas in Knocked Up, Rudd mostly played it straight. Perfectly good though he was in these movies, the silly was slowly being leeched out of him.
Hollywood seems determined to amplify Rudd's ordinariness. In Role Models and I Love You, Man, he retreated even further into the banal, embodying the exasperated drone in the former and the awkward nice guy in the latter. Role Models reunited Rudd with his Wet Hot American Summer director, David Wain, but the results were more pedestrian this time out. As Danny, a sales rep tired of his job, Rudd seemed adrift in the role, only occasionally letting a speck of mischief peek through the dour demeanor.
At least Role Models had a hint of endearing geekiness to it. I Love You, Man was a lazy mess that settled for all the low-hanging fruit of dude humor. Foregrounding the male romance that underlies the Apatow and frat-pack films, the movie featured the usual: a sensitive guy, his sloppy buddy, guys being guys, domesticity disrupted, the inevitability of settling down. As Peter Klaven, a drab man who tries to find a male friend by going on a series of "man dates" (yes, they actually used the term—what have you wrought, Jennifer 8. Lee?), Rudd is constrained by the dictates of a rote script. But between the atrocious lines, Rudd finds room for improvisational flourishes that give the film its only jolt of spontaneous energy. Peter's flailing stabs at freestyle dudespeak offer the movie's funniest moments: Listen to the way "catch some grub" rolls off his tongue unnaturally or the utter lameness of his tossed-off "I'll be there in a mo." It's a command performance in the comedy of dorkiness:
Alas, as Wet Hot American Summer and Anchorman recede further into the distance, so does Rudd's brief moment as an absurdist showman in the movies. In interviews, there's a wistfulness in the way Rudd talks about the two movies, and for good reason—they were the last time his role, and the movie he was in, was truly, delightfully weird. In a way, Rudd's career reflects the bifurcation of contemporary American comedy. The two dominant strands of the genre are the by-the-numbers bro-fest (besides the Apatow male-bonding movies, think Wedding Crashers and The Hangover) and the absurdist genre parodies (think Anchorman, Talladega Nights, Walk Hard, in which Rudd had a hilarious cameo as John Lennon). Rudd, at home in the latter, keeps showing up in the former.
Given the studios' predilection to steer him away from freaky and toward fratty, Rudd has had to take his act underground. Recent years have seen Rudd appear in cameos here and there, turning out brief reminders of how unruly and uproariously random he can be. In a recurring role in Reno 911! he plays Guy Gericault, the creepiest Lamaze instructor on the planet; in an episode of Wainy Days, a Web series by David Wain, he hams it up as Alias, a dirty love guru dressed like a pirate; in a bit for The Michael Showalter Showalter, he and the host (another Wet Hot American Summer alum) parody David O. Russell's infamous YouTube-leaked tantrum. More recently, he showed up in the Adult Swim cult hit Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! in a sketch so odd it defies description—and that shows off Rudd's gift for physical comedy:
Rudd certainly deserves the marquee status he's achieved. And let's not confuse a lament for past triumphs as an argument for pigeon-holing. His forays into theater (Three Days of Rain) and dramatic roles (The Shape of Things) have been successful, and no one is suggesting he shouldn't pursue more roles that push him in new directions. But it would be a supreme waste if Rudd, one of our most intelligent performers, mired himself in the muck of mainstream comedy. Last year, Vanity Fair acknowledged Rudd's ascent by putting him, Rogen, Hill, and Jason Segel on the cover as "Comedy's New Legends." A little premature that—and also a bit off. Rudd doesn't quite fit with the crew; he's a little too ironic and distanced. While the rest make movies aimed squarely at the middle, you can sense in Rudd a desire to stay at the margins, a cultist's sensibility. His excursions to the outer edges of culture suggest a performer working to keep his idiosyncrasies from atrophying, fighting off the tidal pull of Hollywood normalcy.