There's a funny movie about a normal guy whose personal and professional life is thrown upside down by the intrusion of a socially-awkward outcast who misreads the man's kindness and develops an unhealthy preoccupation with their friendship. It's from 1996 and it's called The Cable Guy, starring Jim Carrey, written by Judd Apatow and directed by Ben Stiller. I mention that movie because it's similar in many ways to the new film Dinner for Schmucks, a remake of a 1998 French film (Le Diner de Cons) starring comedic heavy-hitters Paul Rudd and Steve Carell. But whereas Cable Guy wasn't afraid to be dark and strange -- to have an actual comic point of view -- Dinner for Schmucks tries to be everything to everyone. Comedy just doesn't really work that way.
Paul Rudd stars as Tim, a mid-level employee at an investment firm who's looking to get a promotion so he can finally marry his longtime girlfriend Julie (Stephanie Szostak). In order to that, though, he's got to participate in the company's monthly "Dinner for Winners," a cruel party in which Tim's higher-ups all invite oddball losers to a dinner and make fun of them. Into Tim's life (literally) crashes Barry (Carell), a geeky IRS worker and amateur taxidermist who would make for a perfect dinner companion. Before long, Barry has ruined everything for Tim: he trashes his apartment, causes a breakup with Julie, gets Tim audited and nearly costs him his job. It's ok, though, because everyone is going to learn an important lesson about friendship.
Dinner for Schmucks is my least favorite kind of comedy, in which laughs are all predicated on misunderstandings and embarrassment and in which the whole plot could be wrapped up if the characters would actually bother explaining themselves. It's not surprise, then, that it's directed by Jay Roach, whose wildly successful Meet the Parents (and its sequel) essentially created the contemporary template for just this kind of comedy. Schmucks actually goes broader on the wackiness than Parents, and therein lies its hypocrisy. The movie wants us to laugh at the collection of losers it assembles for the titular dinner at the climax, which includes among its guests comedians like Zach Galifianakis, Jeff Dunham and Rick Overton (the cast is actually filled with comedians, including Kristen Schaal, Larry Wilmore and Flight of the Conchords' Jemaine Clement as a self-obsessed artist; he's the best thing about the movie). But Roach tries to have it both ways, demonizing the snotty businessmen for doing the same thing and hammering home syrupy messages about how these people are special and valuable and don't deserve to be laughed at. It makes them as grossly odd as possible and then tries to make us feel bad for finding them funny. Plus, Roach takes his usual more-is-more approach to the comedy, piling on more and more misunderstandings and outlandish plot; he's not satisfied until the scenery has literally gone up in flames.
All of this would be easily forgivable if Dinner for Schmucks were funnier than it is. Paul Rudd is a terrific comedic actor in his own right, but here is relegated to only playing the straight man; there's none of his goofy I Love You Man sweetness or, on the flip side, his bitter Role Models cynicism. He's just a suit for Steve Carell to bounce off of. Trouble is, it's one of Carell's least-funny performances. Yes, he excels at playing awkward, geeky outcasts (as evidenced on both The Office and in The 40-Year Old Virgin), but those characters are funny because they're grounded in reality. They can be offbeat and even irritating, but they're still human. I can't really say as much for Schmucks' Barry, who is so over-the-top it's like he's from another planet. Of course, this being a Jay Roach movie, he tries to create sympathy for Barry by giving him a sad-sack backstory involving an ex-wife, but it never really lands. Every time Barry crosses the line in his well-intentioned awfulness, you can feel the film's sympathy mechanisms kicking in: Carell's posture sinks, the score kicks in and we get another look into his unhappy love life. That, I guess, is supposed to excuse his behavior for the rest of the film.
There's a lot of potential in Dinner for Schmucks -- beyond just the talented cast -- but it mostly goes wasted. It needed to choose a clearer tone; either be darker and more mean-spirited or fully embrace the eccentricities of the title "schmucks" and make them the heroes. Instead, it tries to walk the fence between the two and becomes just another formulaic Hollywood comedy. We've got enough of those.
When I wasn't thinking of The Cable Guy, Dinner for Schmucks reminded me of another Rudd comedy, Role Models, which presented us with a collection of live action role playing outcasts that it could have easily mocked for laughs. Instead, it showed them as real people who loved and embraced their unusual hobby and, in doing so, brought us into their world rather than keeping us laughing from the sidelines. It's a better movie as a result. Check that out instead and pass on Dinner for Schmucks.
- Dinner for Schmucks is rated PG-13 for sequences of crude and sexual content, some partial nudity and language.
- Release Date: 7/30/10
- Running Time: 114 minutes
- Studio: Paramount