Dinner for Schmucks
- Directed by Jay Roach
- Written by David Guion and Michael Handelman
- Starring Steve Carell and Paul Rudd
- Classification: 14A
A remake of a French farce, Dinner for Schmucks is a meal more for gluttons than gourmets. With moments of fitful hilarity, the pairing of Paul Rudd, Steve Carell and a talented cast of secondary actors, there's plenty here to keep summer comedy fans satiated, if not entirely satisfied.
Consistent with the writing style that dominates contemporary movie comedy, this new comedy from Jay Roach ( Meet the Fockers, Austin Powers) is a trade-off between moments of improvised comic inspiration (reportedly cut from 900,000 feet of film) and perfunctory dramatic bridging. Far too often, Roach and his writers (David Guion and Michael Handelman) settle for stretches of slapstick inanity that even Larry, Curly and Moe might excise as needlessly lowbrow.
The movie's premise comes from the 1998 hit movie The Dinner Game by Francis Veber (screenwriter of La cage aux folles), in which a group of wealthy businessmen compete to see who can invite the biggest fool to dinner. Rudd (he's restricted here to his straight-man-in-a-business-suit mode) plays investment analyst Tim Conrad, who longs to move up to the coveted seventh floor of his firm. His pretty art curator girlfriend, Julie (Stephanie Szostak), keeps postponing their engagement and Tim decides a promotion might convince her. When a colleague is sacked, Tim has an opportunity to impress his boss (Bruce Greenwood), but first he has to pass the distasteful dinner test, which he recognizes is "a bit messed up."
He has the good luck to run into Barry Speck, literally, when he knocks him down with his Porsche. When the victim promptly offers to pay for damages, Tim knows he's found a keeper but he quickly regrets the encounter. In a short time, Barry (Carell) has insinuated himself in Tim's life, threatening to ruin his career, relationship and fashionable condo.
Buck-teethed, bespectacled, with the Jerry Lewis bowl cut and vacant, wide-eyed smile, Carell's character seems borderline mentally disabled, or perhaps a parody of the stock-comic moron that political correctness was supposed to have buried. (Here's one residual element of the French original; the over-cultured Europeans love holy idiots like Jerry Lewis.) Barry has a job as an IRS agent, though his behaviour makes it seem improbable he could be functionally employed at all.
The more grating aspects of the character are alleviated by Carell's flights of whimsy and nimble comic timing. Also, Barry has been bestowed with a gift for creating historical dioramas out of dead mice. (The imaginative "mouseterpieces" were created by the same team responsible for the puppets in Team America: World Police and are so endearingly detailed, it's hard to imagine anyone laughing at them.) In an inspired touch, Barry finds a natural kinship with an actual artist, played by Jemaine Clement ( Flight of the Conchords), a randy, conceited self-portraitist who threatens to steal Julie away from Tim. Clement's grandly narcissistic performance is just one example of how much comic talent Dinner for Schmucks is willing to throw at the screen.
Other secondary stars include Zach Galifianakis ( The Hangover), who appears as Barry's sadistic boss and mistakenly believes he has hypnotic powers. There's also Little Britain's David Walliams as a kooky Swiss millionaire, The Daily Show's Kristen Schaal as Tim's ferociously ambitious secretary and Larry Wilmore as a giggling, sadistic executive. The only real misfire is statuesque English comedienne Lucy Punch (who stars in the upcoming Woody Allen film You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger) as Tim's psychotic old flame.
You have to enjoy the generosity of seeing so many good performers punching home their few moments of screen time, but Roach chokes us with excess. The culminating dinner introduces a new roster of delusional eccentrics ending in a spiral of mayhem that looks and feels more like chaos than comedy. To paraphrase the words of the hungry orphan protagonist from Dickens's Oliver Twist, "Please, sir, we want less."