Dinner for Schmucks
Film review by: Witney Seibold
The premise of Jay Roach‘s “Dinner for Schmucks” is, upon immediate examination, kind of cruel: A group of well-to-do American businessmen invite unwitting weirdos to a monthly dinner, and they secretly compete over who brought the biggest idiot. The film is based on a 1998 French film called “The Dinner Game” (which was, in itself, suggested by a Flaubert story), which was even more cruel, but gets a pass as it was more broadly farcical; it seemed to have its roots in the grand comic tradition of theater. “Dinner for Schmucks,” now Americanized, and starring Paul Rudd as the businessman and Steve Carell as the schmuck, tries to declaw itself. It wants to be broad and farcical, but also aims to be a story of sympathy and growth. This means we’re given a film that is funny and delightful for long stretches, a little bland for brief stretches, and whose lightness now only serves to throw its own cruelty into stark relief.
Rudd plays Tim, a go-getter at a vague business firm who is in constant fear of losing his job. When he makes a positive and assertive business suggestion at a meeting, his boss (Bruce Greenwood) invites him to the titular dinner. If he wins this little cruel game, it’s likely he’ll be promoted. If he fails… but let’s not think of that. He decides not to compete, much to the relief of his bland art-dealer girlfriend Julie (Stephanie Szostak), but is compelled to enter when he literally runs into Barry (Carell), a blissfully ignorant taxidermist, who makes chintzy dioramas with clothed mice.
The bulk of the film is the 24-hour period before the titular dinner where Barry manages to, unwittingly, get Tim mixed up with a psycho ex-lover (a funny Lucy Punch), a mind-controlling accountant (Zach Galifianakis), a botched business luncheon, and the possibility of forcing his beloved into the arms of a hedonistic art douchebag (a very, very funny Jemaine Clement, channeling Aldous Snow from “Get Him the the Greek”).
This film is serviceable and funny. The secret to us liking Barry is that Carell does not play him for an object of pity; Carell and Roach seem to know that the only way to keep the material light and funny is to keep Barry constantly happy. Barry smiles when he is insulted, thinking that no one could be that cruel. He is blissfully unaware of the world’s evils. Rudd is not exactly cruel, forced to compete in this little game out of desperation. Neither is a really a bad guy in this scenario, so we’re o.k. With the mockery.
By the time we reach the film’s climax at the schmuck dinner (the funniest in the film), we’ve come to feel sympathy for both Barry and Tim, and hope for them to succeed. It’s still broad and obvious, but it moves quickly and is kind of enjoyable.
Carell and Rudd have made several films together, and I hope they make more. They are a very good – dare I say – comic duo.