Rated PG-13 for sequences of crude and sexual content, some partial nudity and language.
Running time: 110 min.
Directed by: Jay Roach
Written by: David Guion & Michael Handelman
Starring: Steve Carell, Paul Rudd, Stephanie Szostack, Jemaine Clement, Zach Galifianakis, Bruce Greenwood, Lucy Punch
Dinner for Schmucks wants to be a geek show, reveling in the absurdity of its misfit characters, but strangely, it never gets mean enough. Amiable for most of the running time, Schmucks lacks cohesion in its concept and displays hypocrisy in the way it feigns outrage at the titular event, but then goes out of its way to include it in an astoundingly clumsy epilogue. The saving grace of the movie is the welcome and refreshing energy that exists between Paul Rudd and Steve Carell, playing respectively, the man and his schmuck.
Rudd’s Tim is an analyst pursuing a big promotion, and agrees to bring a guest to his boss’s dinner party where the goal is to present the biggest moron you can find. Although his girlfriend thinks (rightly so) this is a cruel practice, Rudd decides to go through with it when he almost runs over eccentric Barry (Carell), and discovers the man’s ‘talent’ for making ‘mousterpieces’, little dioramas filled with dead mice enacting famous art. When Tim throws out his back, and Barry shows up a day early for dinner, the plan backfires and Tim’s life is thrown into a slapstick farce of random chaos.
Sound funny? Not nearly as much as it should be. Schmucks is based off of Francis Verber’s funny, and vaguely mean-spirited, 1998 French farce The Dinner Game. For the first two-thirds of this one, they share almost identical screwball events. The difference is Dinner Game leapt fearlessly into its dopey plot and never looked back, and it found heartfelt empathy in the performance of Jacques Villeret as the idiot. The straight-man in that one was more of an unfeeling jerk and his comeuppance was the centerpiece of the movie, whereas Rudd’s Tim is a nice guy paying excessively for a moment of bad judgment. Most importantly, the original film knew to steer well clear of actually showing the dinner itself.
For their parts, Carell and Rudd are giving the film what they can, and they set themselves at the unlikely task of taking two unappealing caricatures and delivering enough humanity that we don’t mind following them for nearly two hours. Carell’s Barry is implausibly and inconsistently written—sometimes he’s the biggest buffoon you have ever seen and others just an obliviously content man whose moments of clarity are terribly painful –but the comedian gives him a shaggy dog charm and makes us feel his awkwardness. The downside is that when the film requires him to participate in unfunny scenes that go on for too long, he reverts to the idiocy of Michael Scott from The Office, with none of the flashes of surprise resourcefulness that make that character fun.
Tim is too much of a nice guy for this story, but Rudd’s got an affable and bemused quality to him that’s appealing. He’s also reveals the ability to psychologically wear this ‘punishment’ with grace. Tim knows at some level he deserves the insanity Barry is inflicting on his life, but he still can’t help but express disbelief as each new misunderstanding reveals itself. I can easily imagine Rudd stepping into the Griffin Dunne role in After Hours, another comedy of errors, and making it shine.
The rest of the cast exist either to furnish Tim and Barry with narrative baggage or to populate the movie with a minefield of losers they must navigate. The best of these characters is Jemaine Clement’s self-absorbed artist, who proudly stands in front of a self-portrait where he’s decked out like Jesus, and talks about the time he was fist-deep in a zebra’s baby maker. Clement, who perfected smarmy dork elitism with a hilarious lack of self awareness on Flight of the Concords is essentially doing the same thing here. He works though, because he’s far more relaxed than the rest of the cast, and downplays his role as written in favor of his natural gifts as a comedian.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Zach Galifiniakas as Barry’s nemesis, an IRS agent who thinks he possesses the ability of mind control. When Tim and Barry first meet him, he’s like a furry little hobbit locked in a sterile cubicle cage, and the film would have been wise to leave him there. There is something mysteriously funny about a man who thinks he can control the world but never leaves his desk, even at odd hours of the night. Of course, there is a necessity to get Zach to the last act of the film, just so he and Carrell can have an outrageously overwrought psychic battle of wills.
About that dinner. This is where the movie fails completely. Tim has come to understand and empathize with Barry, and for Barry’s part, he’s committed himself as a friend to Tim. Technically the story is over, but the writers want to give Greenwood’s boss his comeuppance and take one last stab at running their geeks through the grinder. The problem is that the idea of the dinner is funnier in concept than execution. You either commit to making these people feel real and then revel in their oddity and subsequent humiliation, or you make them over-the-top cartoons that just munch their way through the scene. Schmucks might have achieved some real humor if it had gone for the former, but it opts for the latter.
Up until that point, Dinner is a clumsy but mildly amusing comedy. It even achieves a kind of humorous perfection in its title sequence where we watch Barry lovingly prepare his mice, complete with the ironing of tiny, tiny pants. That final scene stalls it dead, though. With the exception of John Waters, who would have found deep affection for the losers and abominably clever ways to skewer the mockers, I can think of few directors that could have made the dinner itself work. By the time O’Dowd’s blind fencer is chopping off fingers, and an escaped vulture is winging its way through Greenwood’s mansion, I was more than done with Schmucks.