30 July 2010

Dinner for Schmucks

Steve Carell, left, and Paul Rudd are shown in a scene from "Dinner for Schmucks."
Why the title, "Dinner for Schmucks"?

To my recollection, no one in the film ever uses the word "schmuck." In fact, the event of the title quite often is referred to as a "dinner for idiots," to which each of a group of financial executives brings a guest to (unknowingly) compete for the distinction of being the biggest idiot of the bunch.

That's one of the multiple head-scratching facets of the film.

The most problematic is that it takes two of our most gifted comic actors, the great Paul Rudd and Steve Carell, and turns them—and everyone else in the movie, for that matter—into obnoxious cartoons whose behavior is determined solely by the needs of the plot.

I have heard it said that good comedy is either really smart or really silly—I would add that the best comedy is both—but for most of its running time, "Dinner for Schmucks" is just plain stupid.

Plenty of comedies have failed harder. The stupidity I'm talking about is the misuse of its two leads. The strengths of Carell and Rudd lie in character-based comedy, a kind of humor that feels honest, natural. (Carell often goes broad as Michael Scott on "The Office," yes, but it's rooted in that character's personality, his unending need to be all things to everybody.) Here, they are reduced to mugging for the camera, fishing for jokes through slapstick.

Of course, subtlety never has been the specialty of director Jay Roach, the man behind the "Austin Powers" and "Meet the Parents" franchises. He's working from a script by David Guion and Michael Handelman based on a 1998 French film called "The Dinner Game."

Rudd is Tim, who is in line for a big promotion that he hopes will prove to his girlfriend (Stephanie Szostak) that he is good enough to marry. To seal the deal with his boss (Bruce Greenwood), he must attend the aforementioned monthly dinner.

Enter Barry, who Carell plays in a sort of greatest-hits act; he's equal parts Michael Scott, "Anchorman's" Brick Tamland and Andy Stitzer of "The 40-Year-Old Virgin." Barry is a lonely IRS employee whose passion is creating meticulously detailed dioramas using preserved, dead mice.

As Barry leaches onto Tim and ruins his entire life in the span of a day, Roach directs without any sense of rhythm, never creating any momentum to carry the story forward. He simply gives us a bunch of people acting weird begging the audience to laugh at them just as the movie's mean-spirited characters do without any sense of comic timing.

Jemaine Clement, well known to Flight of the Conchords fans, and "The Hangover's" Zach Galifianakis create characters that probably were hilarious in table reads but simply do not work on the screen. Their efforts to be weird supersede everything.

Too late, the movie tries to have a heart, leading to a wholly unearned happily-ever-after conclusion.

There are some laughs to be had, and despite the recycled feel of his performance, they are almost all courtesy of Carell. But there aren't nearly enough yuks to counteract the damage done by everyone else. The real schmucks are the people responsible for this movie.

Greg's Grade: D+

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