This weekend, Paramount Pictures invites you to a
Dinner for Schmucks. If I were you, I wouldn’t be so quick to RSVP.
Paul Rudd plays Tim, an earnest financial analyst hoping to fill a recently vacated upper-level position. His boss (Bruce Greenwood) is all but ready to give it to him, too, but first, Tim must partake in a sick managerial tradition. Everyone brings a goofy guest to a fancy banquet, and the bigwigs revel at the resulting interactions between idiots.
Aperitifs are tasty, with plenty of sunshine, a silly spin on high-rise society, and Paul Rudd’s dependably cheery dimples. Tim runs into (literally) his idiot early on: a socially-stunted IRS employee/taxidermy hobbyist named Barry. Steve Carell plays Barry like a grade-school version of his Michael Scott (from TV’s The Office) trapped inside a middle-aged Trekkie’s body. He also plays the plot glue: stitching together haphazard comedic attempts and salvaging even the most painfully unfunny stretches with his commitment to absurdity.
Adapted from Francis Veber’s 1998 farce Le Diner de Cons, the film honors its French influence with a dusty, dreamy piano score and the casting of French actress Stephanie Szostak in the role of Tim’s not-quite-fiancée Julie. Barry’s mouse-laden dioramas—the focus of his downtime and his dinner-guest criteria-filler—also contain a certain Parisian whimsy. In every other sense, however, Dinner for Schmucks has been fully Americanized.
Director Jay Roach and writers David Guion and Michael Handelman have shoehorned the story into a lighthearted Hollywood narrative structure—cleansing the virtues of our protagonists, emphasizing human relationships, and searching for empathy within the idiots. As we are forced to understand Barry’s eccentricities, the devious dinner proposition moves from wicked to grotesque. Our appetite for an impending climax of hilarity grows into an uncomfortable dread.
As failed jokes and squandered character set-ups pile high like dirty dishes, embarrassment easily wins out over entertainment. Unsurprisingly, the most successful bits involve the dolts that we don’t like so much—particularly a bodacious, brazen Lucy Punch as Tim’s vampy stalker Darla. The highlight of the evening is actually a lunch, during which Carell and Punch work an angle of mistaken identities to an awkwardly uproarious extreme.
Lunch may be fun, but the titled feast is a cold and ugly one. The air dry of humor, the filmmakers desperately hurl chaos clichés up on the screen, hoping that something will stick. Nothing ever does, and a dinner for idiots plays like a dinner written and staged by idiots.
Somewhere buried here is a biting commentary on ladder-climbing corporate culture, complete with a title reinterpretation to refer to the ones in charge. But once dinner is finally served, the only “schmucks” around are the ones in the theater seats. Check, please!
Directed by Jay Roach. Written by David Guion & Michael Handelman. Rated PG-13 for sequences of crude and sexual content, some partial nudity and language. Runtime is 1 hour, 49 minutes.
Also opening this week, High School Musical heartthrob Zac Efron headlines Charlie St. Cloud. “Zefron” plays a young sailor haunted by the accidental death of his younger brother, among other undead spiritual forces. The Universal film has been likened to a Lifetime TV movie with a supernatural twist; in other words, reviews aren’t so hot—as much as Zefron may be. (Our friend Max Weiss from Baltimore Magazine describes “Zac Efron face porn.”)
Cats & Dogs: the Revenge of Kitty Galore is a sequel to the all-but-forgotten 2001 flick Cats & Dogs. I remember a tiny gray puffball of Russian fury from the first installment (and absolutely nothing else), and I suppose he’s back to even the score—in 3D, of course. Critical reception for the Warner Bros’ film has unsurprisingly fallen toward the “abysmal” end.
Next week: Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg are The Other Guys, the dancing craze enters the third dimension in Step-Up 3D, and the British Indie attains new levels of grunge and low-budgetry with The Disappearance of Alice Creed.