Let them leave with a smile and feel happy is the goal of many comedies. Dinner for Schmucks has the same goal, but it totally undercuts the incendiary and repugnance of its title. What should be dark humored and cynical is actually a warm comedy for the 30-and-older crowd. That’s not to say that it is devoid of laughs, but something was lost in the translation (the premise for Dinner for Schmucks is borrowed from the 1999 French comedy, The Dinner Game).
Jay Roach, who seems to have gone from appeasing teenagers and man-children with the Austin Powers franchise to attracting older audiences with Meet the Parents and its sequel, directs Schmucks as if he was afraid to get a citation from the political correctness police. The comedy’s title may have a Yiddish word in place of idiot to make it more palatable to the theatergoer buying a ticket, but the word schmuck is neither used as a punch line nor is it interjected as part of a conversation.
Steve Carell, who just five years ago was a 40-year-old trying to lose his virginity, and Paul Rudd, who still looks like Alicia Silverstone’s (remember her?) stepbrother in 1993’s Clueless, are paired together in this odd-couple comedy of errors. As the movie opens, Tim Wagner (Rudd) is on the verge of moving up the corporate ladder. Interjecting an idea at the end of a meeting is almost a mistake, but his boss, Fender (Bruce Greenwood), likes his aggressiveness – but more importantly the millions it could mean for the company. To see how callous Tim can be in the company of others, Fender invites him to dinner. It’s not your typical soiree; the dinner involves the guest to bring his own “idiot,” and, subsequently, the biggest idiot earns a trophy at the end of the night. For Tim to secure the promotion means that his guest needs to be the be-all end-all of idiocy.
The idea is morally wrong on so many levels that Julie (Stephanie Szostak), his girlfriend, tries to be the voice of reason and talk Tim out of doing the dinner. Tim agrees, but the next day fate intervenes and he encounters – or, more to the point, hits with his car – the perfect idiot. His name is Barry (Carell), and he’s an IRS drone. Crunching numbers and issuing audits may be Barry’s day job, but it is his hobby of taxidermy – using mice specifically – that garners curious looks from strangers. Visually stunning, it’s hard to get past the dead rodent aspect, even if the subjects are well preserved. Still the talent is remarkable, but not as impressive as being able to systemically ruin Tim’s life in a matter of hours.
Dinner for Schmucks sets out what it wants to achieve in the first few minutes of Barry’s arrival. The audience instinctually has a “this guy is a complete idiot” vibe. However, the mean-spirited comedy quickly dissolves so that its pathos can have a feel-good ending. Granted, nobody was expecting Dinner for Schmucks to be the second coming of Neil LaBute’s In the Company of Men, but the comedy, at the very least, could have skewered the class system of living in the United States a little more. The two leads are competent in their roles, with Steve Carell being the charmer as Barry. Almost immediately the audience starts to empathize with him. Barry’s actions are deplorable to the extent that they are unwise but are not necessarily stupid. Like when he engages in a little instant-messaging conversation with a former one-night stand of Tim’s and mistakenly invites her over to Tim’s apartment. Who is the bigger idiot: Barry for touching Tim’s computer without asking or Tim for not blocking the one-night stand who still stalks him over the web.
In supporting roles, Zach Galifianakis’s introduction as Barry’s boss at the IRS office allows him to steal the spotlight from the two leads if only for a scene. His facial mannerisms, stoic they may be, are enough to illicit laughter. But it is Lucy Punch as Tim’s stalker who is the most memorable. Comedy fans may go in wanting to see Steve Carell and Paul Rudd yuk it up, but they will be gossiping about Punch afterward. Her performance is straight out of a sitcom, but she ups the outrageousness that the comedy lacks for most of its 115-minute length (which, yes, is too long for this comedy).
Wanting to obey political correctness instead of ruffle feathers, Dinner for Schmucks is not a comedy that alienates viewers. While the premise suggests mean-spiritedness, the movie is more or less a screwball comedy with Steve Carell as the accident-prone guy and Paul Rudd taking the brunt of the punishment. The mishmash of different styles of comedy doesn’t click and viewers are left wondering if this was a comedy that was geared for adults but friendly enough for teen viewers or the other way around.
Director: Jay Roach Notable Cast: Steve Carell, Paul Rudd, Zach Galifianakis, Bruce Greenwood, Jemaine Clement, Andrea Savage, Lucy Punch, Ron Livingston Writer(s): David Guion, Michael Handelman; Inspired by “The Dinner Game” by Francis Veber
Travis Leamons is one of the Inside Pulse Originals and currently holds the position of Managing Editor at Inside Pulse Movies. He's told that the position is his until he's dead or if "The Boss" can find somebody better. I expect the best and I give the best. Here's the beer. Here's the entertainment. Now have fun. That's an order!