As an assimilated Jew of Eastern European extraction, I'm proud that the Yiddish my ancestors spoke when they arrived at Ellis Island more than a century ago has now so thoroughly permeated everyday American English that Hollywood can feel comfortable putting a Yiddish word like 'Schmucks' in a movie title and assume everyone will know what it means. On the other hand, everyone obviously does not know what it means, including perhaps the filmmakers and the DreamWorks studio marketers, or they might have thought twice about using a word that's actually a vulgar slang term for a part of a man's body.
Sure, I get that they needed a word that was stronger than just "idiots," but would anyone be able to get away with calling a movie 'Dinner for D--kheads'?
Obviously, someone has been thinking about this problem for about 12 years. The 1998 French movie that the new Steve Carell-Paul Rudd comedy is based on was called 'Le dîner de cons,' with "cons" being a French word that's stronger than mere "idiots," but which is also a rude slang term for a part of a woman's body. In America, the film was released as 'The Dinner Game,' which hints at what the movie is about but isn't nearly as funny or graphic.
At least the word "schmucks" is funny. It has that "sh-" beginning that's common to a lot of insulting Yiddish words, it ends with that hard "k" sound (words with "k" sounds are always funnier than words without them), and it rhymes with a couple of popular and crude English words. Still, why use a word like that on the marquee, especially when it doesn't even appear in the film's dialogue? Other Yiddish words, like "schlemiels" (awkward, clumsy people), "shlimazls" (unlucky people), or "shmendriks" (stupid people), would have been just as accurate, though they are not as common in American speech.
One reason the English language is so expressive is that it's a magpie tongue that's happy to absorb expressive words from other languages. Nonetheless, there are plenty of older, cleaner English words the filmmakers could have used that are just as colorful -- morons, fools, dolts, oafs, halfwits, dimwits, dunderheads, fatheads, blockheads, birdbrains, ninnies, nincompoops, numbskulls, cretins, ignoramuses, imbeciles, lummoxes, stooges, simpletons, dunces, suckers and saps. To name a few.
Did the filmmakers think they were putting one over on the vast majority of ticketbuyers who don't realize that "schmucks" has a filthy meaning beyond just "idiots" and "jerks"? Maybe they were echoing the director Billy Wilder (another Eastern European Jew who made the American vernacular his own), who, in one of Hollywood's first-ever uses of the word "schmucks," slipped it into the dialogue of his Cold War farce 'One, Two, Three' in 1961. (The movie is hilarious, by the way. Add it to your Netflix queue now.) In those days, the Hollywood production code censors, men who would have snipped the word immediately if it had been in English, were generally Irish-Catholics who may well have been unfamiliar with the Yiddish word and so let it slide.
Half a century later, it still seems surprising to me to see such a word on a public marquee, but then, maybe it all depends on cultural context. No one in America had a problem a decade ago when Mike Myers called his spy spoof sequel 'Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me,' but in England, where "shagged" has the same meaning but is considered a filthier word, eyebrows were raised.
Oh, and that movie, like 'Dinner for Schmucks,' was directed by Jay Roach. Roach was born a Southern Baptist, but he converted to Judaism when he married Susanna Hoffs of the Bangles. Maybe that's why he's less reticent about the word "schmucks" than someone raised hearing the word used in its original context would be. Or maybe not; as Paul Rudd (who had a Jewish upbringing) recently told the Jewish Journal, "I know there are some people who might [have taken] offense, but it wouldn't even have crossed my mind that somebody might find this offensive." Rudd told the Journal that his own grandfather used to call him a "schmuck" or a "putz" (nearly synonymous and just as rude). "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.'"
In the movie, Rudd's character Tim is an ambitious junior executive who bucks for a promotion by joining his boss's callous dinner party contest, where each guest competes to see who can bring along the most buffoonish companion. Tim thinks he has a winning twit in Carell's Barry, but the dinner proves an ego-deflating disaster that makes everyone wonder, "Who really is the 'schmuck'?" That's how Roach explains the premise to the Journal, adding that he's sticking by the more casual, Americanized usage of "schmucks."
Maybe that casualness is also a measure of the times. After all, just a couple months ago, marquees that say "Schmucks" today were touting 'Kick-Ass.' It's hard to imagine you would have seen the word "ass" at every shopping mall multiplex, and advertised in every newspaper's movie pages, just a few years ago. It hasn't been that long (has it?) since Ken Russell had such a hard time getting marquee and advertising space for his movie 'Whore' that he re-released it under the unwieldy title 'If You're Afraid to Say It ... Just See It.' (As if people too squeamish to say the word "whore" were ever going to feel comfortable watching a grimly realistic, NC-17-rated movie about the day-to-day life of a prostitute.) If the movie had come out in 2010 instead of in 1991, 'Whore' would be right up there on the "New Releases" video shelves next to 'Kick-Ass' and 'Dinner for Schmucks.'
At least the word "dicks," even in the old-fashioned cop slang meaning "detectives," is still taboo in movie titles. Kevin Smith's recent police spoof was going to be called 'A Couple of Dicks,' until Warner Bros. was informed that TV networks would not advertise a film with that title. So it was changed to 'Cop Out,' with the new title serving as a self-aware joke about being forced to use a more innocuous title. The movie topped out at $45 million at the box office. Would it have done better under its original title? Or worse? If the studio had waited until this fall to release it, could they have advertised it under its original title on CBS' forthcoming family comedy '$#*! My Dad Says'?
It'll be interesting to see what happens as American English absorbs Spanish the way it did Yiddish and cleanses the more colorful but filthy words of their original vulgar connotations. It won't be long -- I give it two years, max -- before we see the word "cojones" in a movie title, comfortably advertised in primetime. And it won't be seen as an act of great provocation or daring; no one will marvel at the filmmakers' brazen display of balls.
•Follow Gary Susman on Twitter @garysusman.