No schmucks were harmed in the making of Dinner for Schmucks. That’s the problem. The promising crudeness of the title, along with the combined talents of stars Steve Carell and Paul Rudd, suggests that at some point, surely, someone will rise to the occasion and behave with unrepentant obnoxiousness. But in a rare tonal misfire, director Jay Roach (Austin Powers, Meet the Parents) delivers a bland, summer-sloppy comedy that never risks actually swimming with schmucks and letting characters bruise themselves on outcroppings of mean fun. Instead, he has decided to sand away all the sharp edges. What’s left is a nice, safe comedy of tolerance and repentance — a subpar Carell-and-Rudd odd-couple buddy movie.
That’s quite a feat, considering that Dinner for Schmucks is about heartless businessmen scum who gather to see which one can bring the biggest unsuspecting ”idiot” to a recurring dinner party. For what it’s worth, Le Diner de Cons — the award-winning 1998 French movie on which this American version is based — never needed to stage the dinner party itself, so adept was veteran director Francis Veber at letting idiots be idiots and scum be scum. (Semantic aside: Having done its work as an attention grabber in ad campaigns, the word schmuck is never uttered in the movie itself; the feckless snobs playing the game, including Bruce Greenwood, Ron Livingston, and The Daily Show’s Larry Wilmore, all refer to idiots.) But then, Roach is a sharp dude who is on record saying that Veber’s film is ”nearly perfect.” So I’ll wager a snob’s meal that it’s the studio execs who are the real schmoes here.
Either way, in a sign of comedy aesthetics to come, a wannabe player named Tim (Rudd) literally runs into Barry (Carell): The former is behind the wheel of his spiffy sports car, and the latter is crossing the street in pursuit of a mouse. Barry, you see, is an IRS civil servant and amateur taxidermist whose obsessive artistic hobby is dressing stuffed dead rodents in handmade outfits and posing them in fanciful tableaux. Never mind that Barry’s exquisite installations are gallery-quality creations of great charm. (Coolio filmmaker Wes Anderson would be wise to appropriate the wee figures for a follow-up to Fantastic Mr. Fox.) We’re meant to laugh because the artist calls them ”mousterpieces” and the medium is the message.
Rudd is a reliably appealing screen presence who excels at playing funny-handsome-smart-exasperated guys who flirt with weaseldom. He’s one of the few hip comic actors around who can easily play mean and still not alienate his fan base. But Rudd has little to do besides rotate facial expressions of frustration, vexation, and, in the end, reconciliation. Tim has moral qualms about going along with the dinner game, but they’re temporarily overridden by a desire to get ahead in business so his gallerist girlfriend (Stephanie Szostak) will be impressed enough to marry him. The logic is lousy from the get-go, as the GF is immediately established as an artsy humanist horrified by shark-tank business practices.
In an effort to spice up the unsalted stew, Dinner for Schmucks gives a lot of room — a desperate amount — to two pungent comedians in minor roles. In a subplot adapted from the French film, Zach Galifianakis lays down his deadpan stares to little effect as Barry’s IRS colleague with self-proclaimed powers of mind control. And in a subplot that, in altered form, wisely took place off camera in the original, Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement bulldozes the film as a preening artist-of-the-moment whom Tim mistakenly believes to be his girlfriend’s lover. (The guy is such a pompous ass that her fidelity is never in doubt.) Similarly, Tim is himself being pursued by a former lover (Lucy Punch). And to prove that she’s no real threat to conservative monogamy, either, the production takes pains to demonstrate that the lady is a coarse, casually misogynist joke of a sexually voracious crackpot. Of course Tim is in the clear, having dumped the ex before he met the lady he loves. Otherwise, he’d be a real schmuck. C