A film review by Craig J. Koban August 11, 2010
DINNER FOR SCHMUCKS
2010, PG-13, 115 mins.
2010, PG-13, 115 mins.
Barry Speck: Steve Carell / Tim Conrad: Paul Rudd / Therman: Zach
Galifianakis / Kieran: Jemaine Clement / Julie: Stephanie
Szostak / Darla: Lucy Punch / Lance: Bruce Greenwood / Caldwell:
DINNER FOR SCHMUCKS has the unintended side effect of making audience members feel like schmucks.
It’s not that I find
bromance cinema involving monumentally idiotic characters infuriating.
No sir. I love
comedies of utter humiliation about hapless losers beyond social
redemption. It’s just that
DINNER FOR SCHMUCKS – especially by the time it reaches a neat and
tidy conclusion – is just too disingenuous to its own intentions.
The end result is a film that's lumberingly inconsistent from a
tonal perspective. Going in I
was expecting a venomously dark comedy of manners that would mercilessly
pick apart its proposed targets and, to a small degree, it modestly
fulfils that expectation. Yet,
the film annoyingly migrates from mean-spiritedness to affection for its
characters, which is a categorical misfire.
DINNER FOR SCHMUCKS, for lack of a better phrase, has no balls.
That is not to say that this
an unfunny comedy. I
laughed uproariously several times throughout and the film manages to
maintain some genuine moments of screwball merriment throughout.
The film’s director, Jay Roach, doesn't need to prove his
comedic/directorial worthiness either (he helmed the first two – and
funniest – AUSTIN POWERS films as well as MEET THE PARENTS and FOCKERS).
The film’s main leads are arguably two of the funniest screen
comedians working today. Paul
Rudd is one of the great, straight-laced, everyman-funnymen who always
manages to simultaneously look poised and unabated by all of the absurd
comic mayhem around him. Steve
Carell is a triple threat comic performer: he can play outlandishly broad
as he does here and in films like DESPICABLE
ME and ANCHORMAN, or sweetly
sincere in THE 40-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN
and DAN IN REAL LIFE, or
melancholically thoughtful and contemplative in LITTLE
MISS SUNSHINE. The
pairing of Rudd, Carell, and Roach – combined with a novel premise –
seems like a perfect recipe for success.
Alas, it is not the men both
behind and in front of the cameras that are the main issues with DINNER
WITH SCHMUCKS; rather, it is the film’s oddly off-putting handling of
the underling material. Based
on Francis Veber’s 1999 French farce "Le Diner de Cons" (THE
DINNER GAME), Roach’s remake takes the essence of the maliciously
cold-hearted original and cultivates it into a formulaic Hollywood vehicle
that’s tonally hypocritical. DINNER
FOR SCHMUCKS wants us to both pitilessly ridicule one main character – a
galactically and tragically stupid and naïve man – but, in the end,
wants us to feel sympathy and appreciate him for who he is.
It's almost more grotesque of a stretch to
ask viewers to identify with and have compassion for its terminally
dumb character than it would have been to just invite us in to eschew this
pathetic individual for nearly two hours.
Here’s the basic premise:
A group of utterly heartless and deplorable businessmen gather at a
highly exclusive dinner party where they are allowed to bring only one
guest, and we are not talking a significant other.
They are to bring an unsuspecting moron to the party that is, yes,
completely unaware of how sub-humanly moronic they actually are so that
all of the businessmen can, in essence, ridicule them. This is precisely where a mid-level executive named Tim
(Rudd) wants to be, seeing as it is his dinner invite that will most
likely lead to a major promotion within his company.
Early in the film he wows his boss (played with slimy
vindictiveness by Bruce Greenwood) by showing his plan for making
specialty novelty lamps and then selling them all to a Swiss billionaire
that wants to buy them. Tim’s
boss is so impressed with his ingenuity that he invites him to a “dinner
for winners” that, as described, involves him picking some poor,
hapless, random fool to be his dinner date that will latter be served up
for target practice. The
biggest idiot of the night wins the trophy and, in Tim’s case, will
eventually lead him to his long sought after promotion.
Tim begrudgingly agrees to go
along with attending the dinner, but his girlfriend (Stephanie Szostak)
finds the event morally reprehensible and insists that Tim forget about it
altogether. Well, Tim does
manage to forget about it…that is until he has a chance meeting with the
mother of all simpleminded doofuses. During one afternoon while driving his prized Porsche
and texting on his cell phone, Tim loses his view of the road and hits an
IRS employee named Barry (Carell). Initially,
Tim is worried about the post-accident condition of Barry, but very soon
he realizes that he has much more to worry about.
Barry, as it turns out, is the
perfect "special" guest for Tim to take to the dinner party.
Barry may just be the most perversely stupid character ever to grace
the silver screen; it’s absolutely chilling how blissfully unaware he is
to all of his stunning intellectual ineptitude.
This guy would make Inspector Clouseau look like Sherlock Holmes. Barry has one hobby that is beyond creepy: he is an amateur
taxidermist that has an obsession with…uuuuhh…. taking dead rodents,
stuffing them and then dressing them in meticulously handmade outfits so he
can place them in insanely elaborate dioramas recreating moments in
popular culture or history. Now,
other people would find dead mouse art revolting and disturbing, but Barry
sees them as deeply personal works of art, or as he calls them “mousterpieces.”
If Barry’s extracurricular
hobbies were not laughable and pathetic enough, he then reveals himself to
be a social cancer in just about everyone’s life he enters.
He is a blithering and toxically ignorant man-child that is able to
completely derail just about any normal situation with shocking ease.
I will not spoil too much more of the overall story, but let’s
just say that – during the course of one short evening – Barry manages
to directly and inadvertently break Tim up with his girlfriend, trash his
luxury apartment, destroy his Porsche, convince Tim to break into another man’s apartment
that he thinks is his girlfriend’s new lover, and informs a woman that stalked Tim for years as to his precise whereabouts,
which subsequently involves – no, seriously – an eye rolling sequence
of events “masterminded” by Barry himself where Tim is coerced into
publicly proposing to his stalker in front of his Swiss business clients.
Oh, Barry also manages to introduce Tim to his IRS boss (a
hilarious Zach Galifianakis) that, while being an accounting wiz, dabbles
in the art of mind-control in his spare time.
Tim is not impressed with Barry’s boss, who concludes their
meeting by announcing that he will audit Tim.
Again, there are laughs to be
had here: Rudd and Carell – re-teaming from their glory days of THE
40-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN – work exceedingly well together.
Rudd is kind of thankless here: he has to elicit a sense of
composure and generate laughs with well-timed reactions amidst the social
atrocities that Barry lays in his wake.
Carell’s performance here is almost beyond words: he eerily
creates a figure of humiliating spite and Herculean naiveté in a
go-for-broke comic performance of manic boisterousness, but he also, at
the same time, manages to make his implausible and maddening idiot kind
of inviting and endearing. The
more preposterous gibberish that comes out of this fool’s mouth, the
more you want him to say something even more outrageous.
There are laughs just with the expectation and build-up
Barry’s disastrous actions. And
the dioramas that he creates are nearly worth the price of admission
Yet, the film makes such a
sharp and loathsomely inappropriate detour into sugar sweet sentimentality
with a horribly tacked-on, feel good conclusion that made me feel cheated.
This is a film that was advertised and initially began with the
promise of being a truly macabre black comedy of manners that showed no
mercy for its targets, but then it wallows into a nauseating parable about
tolerating and accepting Barry for who he is and what he stands for.
DINNER FOR SCHMUCKS could have been a masterfully and aggressively
mean-spirited laugh riot if it stuck to its guns, but the way it goes
all…well…warm and fuzzy is all wrong.
Equally unbelievable – in pure hindsight – is the notion that
Tim would ever, ever donate one millisecond of his valuable time to hang
around a textbook nutcase like Barry.
Rudd, Carell, and Galifianakis
are indeed funny here, but especially hilarious in an extended cameo is
FLIGHT OF THE CONCORD’s Jemaine
Clement. He gives, for my money, the single funniest performance here
as a preening and hauntingly pretentious performance artist named Keiran
Vollard, whose astoundingly ravenous taste for the ladies and his own grandiose
importance almost hijacks the film from everyone else.
This guy, like Russell Brand’s Aldous Snow, almost deserves his
own spin-off comedy. If that
were to occur, I am almost certain that it would have more raw nerve,
scathing guffaws and unforgiving lunacy than DINNER FOR SCHMUCKS, the
latter being an ultimately disappointing farce that feels too
middle-of-the-road, pedestrian and frankly beneath the talents of all on