Amidst comedy's infinite ways of turning pain, embarrassment and discomfort into laughter, Steve Carell has a singular talent for taking traits considered seriously obnoxious in the rest of us, and making them lovable.
This may be the biggest shortcoming of "Dinner for Schmucks." In this adaptation of a recent French comedy, Carell plays one of the unwitting contestants in a game devised by a group of sadistic executives who invite a bunch of idiots to a formal dinner each month, and give a trophy to the biggest dork.
It's cruel sport, but Carell's Barry Speck - IRS bureaucrat by a day, taxidermist who creates dioramas with stuffed, clothed mice by night -never quite convinces the audience he's a real contender.
With his rodent-inspired orthodonture and his beady eyes behind his ever-present glasses, he resembles the mice he stuffs for a hobby. But while the script requires Barry to be annoying enough to inspire thoughts of murder - especially for Tim Conrad, the unctuous corporate climber played by Paul Rudd, who brings Barry to the dinner - Carell makes Barry too cute to hate.
This soft edge doesn't stop the Jay Roach-directed ditty from still being fun. It's no coincidence that the project had its origins in France. With his amazing arsenal of facial expressions, physical schtick and impeccable timing, Carell reveals the same sorts of comic gifts Jerry Lewis once used to convince the normally condescending French that he was a genius.
His co-star, Rudd, has a similar problem. Playing a Porsche-driving striver in a bottom-feeding investment firm, he's the cad who happens onto Barry by accident, literally- but he, too, never achieves the cruel edge his character calls for. Instead, he suffers from the warm fuzzies.
Barry Speck's stuffed mice, it turns out, have almost as much screen time as the stars. They also have equally important roles advancing the plot, and are at least as charming as Barry and Tim. Nonetheless, there will always be room for cute and lovable in the cruel world of comedy, and weak script or not, Carell's genius is a great pleasure to watch in action, whatever the excuse.
A more subdued form of comedy - but richer vein of life truths -is on view in "The Kids Are All Right." After being the big buzz at Sundance this year, it has found its way to mainstream audiences, who are buzzing about it, too.
If the studio had waited until December, there would be Oscar nominations all around for Annette Bening and Julianne Moore as a pair of lesbian moms raising teenagers Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson.
Taking the two-mom family structure in stride - the movie is set in L.A., after all -things start becoming unglued when the kids track down the sperm donor the two moms shared. Mark Ruffalo adds another offbeat but pitch-perfect performance to the long list of them in his resume, rounding out the family, even as his presence threatens to undermine it.
As directed by Lisa Cholondenko, who co-wrote the screenplay with Stuart Blumberg, it's hard to pinpoint the source of this film's greatness. The performances are great precisely because they don't look like performances. Bening and Moore fearlessly don't worry about how they look. Ruffalo is superbly understated as he illustrates the limits of being cool.
Similarly, the writing is great because it doesn't feel like writing. There aren't good guys and bad guys in the cast - everyone is both, the way it is in life although for all their flaws, they are mostly good. And for all the seeming uniqueness of the "two-mom" household, not to mention the nonchalant "father" of their children, what makes the movie resonate is how familiar it feels.
Speaking of families, in this column last week I focused on my own - more specifically on entrances and exits, and on the threads tying our new granddaughter, Lili, to her greaTgrandfather, Fred.
After 94 remarkable years, Fred made his final exit early Tuesday morning. He didn't have the chance to read the comments that came in from so many of you in response to last week's column.
Along with the "what a guy!" sentiments, he didn't get a chance to see the kindness, wisdom and heartfelt feelings you shared.
I think he would have appreciated them. I know I did.
Contact Rick Chatenever at firstname.lastname@example.org.