Despite what its title might suggest, the new comedy Dinner for Schmucks contains surprisingly little truly objectionable behavior. The film is a remake of a French film, Francois Veber’s The Dinner Game, and it falls prey to the worst tendencies of Hollywood films, removing any sharp edges from the humor in search of a boring warm-and-fuzzy feeling that doesn’t make for very good comedy.
Paul Rudd plays Tim Conrad, an ambitious man who dreams of promotion at the finance company he works for. Tim speaks up in a meeting one day, and his good ideas get the attention of his boss, Lance Fender (Bruce Greenwood), but before he promotes Tim, Fender wants him to come to his monthly “Dinner for Winners,” at which the employees must all bring an idiot, with the best one getting a trophy. Tim balks when he learns this, but he desperately wants to make enough money to impress his art gallery manager girlfriend, Julie (Stephanie Szostak), even though she seems appalled at the idea of the dinner.
Then, one day, Tim literally runs into Barry Speck (Steve Carell) with his car. Barry is an IRS employee who spends his spare time stuffing dead mice and putting them into elaborate dioramas and recreations of famous paintings that he calls “mouseterpieces.” Seeing this as a sign from the universe, Tim agrees to take Barry to the dinner.
Befriending Barry turns out to be a very bad idea for Tim, because Barry, in a very short period of time, unintentionally but systematically destroys Tim’s life. The driving force of the film is supposed to be the burgeoning friendship between Barry and Tim, who realizes that Barry means well, even if he is a “tornado of destruction.” We never really feel the relationship take off, due mostly to bad writing, but Carell and Rudd are both likeable enough to make up for it.
The movie surrounds the main pair with quite a few comedy heavyweights who are mostly more interesting than the main plot of the movie. Zach Galifianakis shows up as Barry’s boss, a guy named Therman who wears a cape and a dickey and thinks he possesses the power of mind control. He earns his keep just for the scene in which his weirdly strained laughter makes his face turn red in a matter of seconds.
Easily the funniest thing about the film is Jemaine Clement, formerly of Flight of the Conchords, here playing Kieran, an artist whose extraordinary pretentiousness is matched only by his rampaging ego. Kieran is his own favorite subject, and his paintings often feature him with some sort of animal (“He can fit an entire octopus in his mouth!”). Julie is curating Kieran’s show at her art gallery, and naturally Tim fears that he will seduce her.
Meanwhile, Tim is being stalked by a crazy former one-night stand named Darla (Lucy Punch), to whom Barry accidentally gave Tim’s address. When she shows up at Tim’s apartment he rejects her, and she turns her attention to Barry, who seems oblivious about why a girl in skintight black leather would ask him to spank her. Out of options, Darla just starts breaking shit.
At times, Barry seems to reach a nobility in his idiocy, because he’s oblivious to how others see him, and can only imagine being himself, and because of this we’re meant to see him as essentially honorable. But Barry also crosses some serious lines and does some really repellent things. I’m not sure if that’s complexity or inconsistency on the part of the script, which was written by David Guion and Michael Handelman, but Carell manages to show the sadness and loneliness at Barry’s heart, as well as his intrinsic optimism. He seems to find the character more complex than the movie does.
But complexity of character isn’t something this movie seems to be interested in. The two major female characters are borderline insulting in their simplicity. Julie is portrayed as being so saintly, so perfect in every way, that, despite the fact that Tim spends half the movie worrying about it, there is never any real danger for the audience that she could be hooking up with Kieran. The only other major female character is Darla, who is cartoonish even for a psychopathic sex-kitten stalker.
Even Tim is poorly developed as a character, leaving Rudd with little to do besides making alternating faces of exasperation and frustration. It’s only because Rudd so easily projects likeability that the audience can root for Tim at all.
Carell and Rudd are both veterans of Judd Apatow’s school of raunchy comedies that also come with a dose of heart. Dinner for Schmucks tries to emulate that, but here the emotion comes off as being forced and tacked on, and rather hypocritical to boot. The movie invites us to laugh at the idiots we see for the first 90 minutes, and then at the end scolds us for it, tacking on a message about how the schmucks are good people, too, and we’re the real losers for laughing at them. These attempts to bathe all the mockery in feelgood sentiment don’t serve the film well. Rather, they blunt what could have been some really sharp and insightful humor.
Yet, somehow the movie manages to be too soft at some times and too mean at others. The original film was fairly mean spirited, but its characters were also much more rotten people. Here, the film portrays Tim as a guy who is good at heart, and merely misguided in his attempts to get ahead at work. His bad decisions are fueled by ambition, not cruelty. Because of that, the large number of scenes in which Barry destroys Tim’s life are much more unsavory than they might be.
Despite these flaws, the movie keeps the laughs coming fairly consistently, even if they are rather forgettable ones. The film is too formulaic for anything really incisive, and must rely instead on a parade of relentless silliness and slapstick. Dinner for Schmucks is full of funny people who know how to deliver, but the film dulls its edges so much that the inconsequential laughs fade quickly, and the movie’s missed opportunities and weird hypocrisy are what remain freshest in our minds.
Carey Norris writes about film for Birmingham Weekly. Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.