There is nothing mean about Dinner for Schmucks, which contains a cast of idiots so absurdly stupid that they register only as the conduit for jokes. Quite the opposite: The movie is just too darn nice.

The movie is the opposite of and betters its basis, The Dinner Game (or Le Dîner de Cons) from France in 1998. There was a claustrophobic comedy about despising not a person’s intelligence, but one’s class, whereas here is a comedy of people without class — some because they have little sense of social propriety and others because they have no sense of moral decency. Are we supposed to look down on the idiots of Dinner for Schmucks? No, but we are meant to laugh at their behavior, or otherwise the large majority of the movie’s jokes would be absent.

In tacking on a sentimental, moralistic view of the schmucks is where the last acts of David Guion and Michael Handelman’s screenplay runs afoul of its original intentions. We do not feel guilty for laughing at the menagerie of morons during the climactic dinner, and we’re not supposed to. No matter how hard Guion, Handelman, and director Jay Roach try to highlight the participants’ humanity, these are caricatures. Humanizing them rings as false as it would if the script tried to sympathize with the differently dumb corporate buffoons who invited them in the first place.

One of those corporate types is Tim (Paul Rudd), an ambitious paper-pusher with dreams of becoming an executive. When a job opens upstairs, he presents his boss (Bruce Greenwood) and the rest of the cronies with a way to make a fortune by signing on a spend-happy Swiss millionaire (David Williams) as a client.

The execs hold a monthly dinner, where each invites a person of special interest or talent. The biggest idiot wins a medal. They leave none the wiser, while the corporate guys have a laugh.

Tim is uncertain but really wants the job. His girlfriend, Julie (Stephanie Szostak), is entirely certain she doesn’t want him to attend — promotion on the line or not.

Out of the blue, Tim runs into Barry (Steve Carell) with his car. He knows he’s found a potential winner when Barry offers to pay him to keep the lawyers out of the situation. The fact that Barry recreates famous works of art and important events from his own life by dressing, posing, and photographing stuffed mice is only the icing on the cake (The opening credits, which show Barry’s dedication to the craft in his assembly of a summer’s day diorama, might be the movie’s single funniest sequence).

Barry is clueless beyond measure. It is the only way for the script to garner material. He shows up to Tim’s apartment a day early, which complicates matters with Julie, who runs off after she suspects Tim has lied about changing his mind about the dinner, which leads Tim to try to win her back. Barry — as nice as he is and as helpful as he attempts to be — cannot get one thing accomplished properly.

Unlike the original, Tim and Barry are not left to their own devices and leave the apartment to search for Julie. Among the cavalcade of strange individuals they encounter are Darla (Lucy Punch), a woman Tim once slept with who now stalks him; Kieran (Jemaine Clement), a narcissistic artist whose work always incorporates himself; and Therman (Zach Galifianakis), Barry’s boss at the local IRS office who fancies himself a psychic. Darla wants to make Tim jealous by trying to sleep with Barry (who thinks it’s just a game), Kieran wants to use Julie in his art then sleep with her, and Therman is now married to Barry’s ex-wife.

It is, for the most part, genuinely funny stuff, because the screenplay recognizes how ridiculous Barry and the rest of the parade of fools are and doesn’t apologize for Barry’s idiocy. Then, unfortunately, it does, and he has to have a self-pitying session while Tim feels guilty for using this poor, sad man.

Dinner for Schmucks forgets pretty quickly that even Barry’s sadness is a gag (using mouse art to show how his marriage failed). The humor gets back on track during the dinner presentation (A dead animal psychic who turns everyone off to the lobster entrĂ©e is a favorite), allowing stupidity to serve as the impetus for revenge, but the turn to schmaltz is dead weight on the movie’s comic tone.

Mark Dujsik is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Online Film Critics Society. For more of his reviews, visit his website.

Post a Comment