A film review by Craig J. Koban August 11, 2010


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: Ron Livingston

Directed by Jay Roach / Written by David Guion and Michael Handelman, inspired by the French film “Le Diner de Cons,” directed and written by Francis Veber.

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 of Barry’s disastrous actions.  And the dioramas that he creates are nearly worth the price of admission alone. 

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 board. 

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