by KYW’s Bill Wine
The meal referred to in the title is a soup-to-nuts affair; that is, soup will be served to a bunch of nuts.
Dinner for Schmucks is a reworking of a 1998 French comedy by director Francis Veber called The Dinner Game that has lost something risible in translation, still has a few momentary bursts of hilarity, but ends up being difficult to digest.
Paul Rudd plays Tim Conrad, an ambitious investment analyst at a Los Angeles financial firm who, wanting a raise and promotion at Fender Financial so that his girlfriend (Stephanie Szostak) might marry him, agrees to participate in a mean-spirited contest among the businessmen invited to a monthly dinner party given by Tim’s boss, Lance Fender (Bruce Greenwood), at his mansion.
At this ironically labeled Dinner for Winners, each invitee must bring a person he considers the biggest idiot/fool/freak/nerd/moron/dunce/jerk he can find. Think of it as BYOB: Bring Your Own Boob.
Anyway, although his girlfriend strongly disapproves of his participation in an event that is sure to humiliate half of the guests and in touch with his own reluctance and repugnance, Tim, caught up in the competitive corporate culture, signs on anyway, knowing that if he can win the competition — that is, if he can turn up with the biggest schmo in the room — he’ll get the cherished promotion and end up in an office a floor or two closer to heaven.
As fate would have it, Tim then accidentally but literally runs into a pedestrian in Beverly Hills, one Barry Speck, a strange, ingenuous IRS employee and avocational taxidermist whose hobby is constructing striking dioramas featuring dead, clothed mice that he calls his “mousterpieces.” Enough said: this guy’s a candidate.
He’s played by Steve Carell as a guy whose childlike cluelessness about his own level of idiosyncrasy makes Carell’s Michael Scott character on TV’s “The Office” seem a paragon of sensitivity and restraint.
But when Barry accepts an invitation to the crucial meal, and turns into The Man Who Came to Dinner Early by mistakenly showing up at Tim’s place a day too soon, Tim’s heretofore comfortable existence begins imploding.
Director Jay Roach has quite a track record turning out convulsively funny comedies. He’s been at the helm of all three Austin Powers romps, as well as Meet the Parents and Meet the Fockers.
But Dinner for Schmucks is oddly off a beat: it often seems in the right zip code to strike us as hysterical, yet never quite arrives at the exact address.
Less biting and cruel than the original, with softer edges, it juggles slapstick and verbal comedy atop a sad undercurrent in a way that keeps it overwhelmingly funny/peculiar and only very occasionally funny/haha. Dead spots and flat jokes abound.
The screenplay by David Guion and Michael Handelman handles the material quite differently than the original did. The French version ended before the titular party. In Dinner for Schmucks, the party provides the extended comic climax, and there is a modest cathartic payoff, by which time we’re questioning just who is being labeled and described by that last word in the title.
Rudd and Carell have worked together before (on The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Anchorman), and they have a decent comic rapport as an odd couple of buds. But reliable Rudd, given far too little to do, is not only much more real but actually funnier as the straight man than Carell is as the constructed-but-not-inhabited clown. Carell’s character, a collection of arbitrary quirks, just never adds up.
A group of able farceurs including Zach Galifianakis, Jemaine Clement, Lucy Punch, Larry Wilmore, and Ron Livingston support the leads, but it’s the Rudd-Carell relationship that’s the main course here and it’s just not tasty or nourishing enough.
So we’ll invite 2 stars out of 4. Intriguingly demented but far short of delightful, Dinner for Schmucks looks from a distance like a farce to be reckoned with and a feast for the funny bone. Trouble is, we leave hungry.