Dinner For Schmucks takes a while to get going, but once the laughs do start coming, they reach all the way back from the land of the absurd and fly out at a brisk pace. It’s as if all of The Funny had been frustratingly bottled up for the first half of the film and is now allowed that sweet, sweet freedom to run rampant all over the theater.
Tim (Paul Rudd as Paul Rudd) is inches away from getting that corner office after taking a leap of faith and impressing his boss (Bruce Greenwood). It’s all his, if he can impress the entire executive staff on Saturday night at a dinner party where each colleague brings the biggest idiot they can find. The rest of the group makes fun of them, and someone goes home with a prize. Tim’s girlfriend who won’t say yes to his frequent marriage proposals, Julie (Stephanie Szostak), hates the idea, but Tim sees a sign from God when he crashes his car into dead mouse hobbyist Barry (Steve Carell). He’s destined to go to this party.
The comedy of this film is, when read deeply into, some of the most reflexive and self-aware possible. It’s a standard comedy with the tacked on lesson that the main character has to learn, except that this time, the lesson is completely blown out of the water by the rest of the movie. Every single laugh is derived from how stupid the stupid characters are, and yet, the lesson is one of realizing who’s really dumb (the people being cruel (that aren’t that funny)). In simpler terms, it’s a movie where a group of people laugh at stupid people, the audience laughs at stupid people, and yet we’re told that laughing at stupid people isn’t nice or funny. Either it’s the most subversive comedy ever or it’s confused and shackled by the modern mold of ending things on a serious note.
This self-reflexivity becomes even more interesting once the lights come up and you see who’s been laughing right alongside you. It was like meeting a guy who gets chronically hit in the testicles and finding out that America’s Funniest Videos is his favorite show.
The beginning of this film and I Love You, Man could be swapped without many people noticing. Paul Rudd is semi-successful but he wants more. His girlfriend turns down his proposal here, but Stephanie Szostak is essentially a placeholder. She’s petite and cute and brunette and she’s just sort of there. There’s a brief glimpse of brilliance when Jemaine Clement’s moronic, self-serving artist opens his mouth or rolls his eyebrows, but the real comedy has to wait until Steve Carell enters the picture.
From there on out, as Barry enters Tim’s life like an itchy rash in the shape of a smiley face, Carell does his best imitation of classic style comedy – running the tables on slapstick and Vaudevillian wordplay – and he does it with so much joy that it’s hard to deny him the laugh he’s working so hard for while making it seem effortless. Some of it works, some of it doesn’t, but when he’s on, it’s brilliant.
Fortunately, the film gives a bit more depth to the character by showing realistically what his life is like. He’s not what society would label as a winner, and the personal situation he needs to triumph over is pity-inducing.
It was clear that director Jay Roach and the entire production staff had fun with the set up. It lends itself so well to sitcom-esque situations that have the added benefit of coming back into the story from time to time. Unlike television, though, the set ups could keep coming back to haunt Tim and cause incredible unease at anticipating what part of his life will be ruined next.
Barry is a whirlwind of life change – destroying property, relationships, tax statuses – but he comes off like the puppy who looks up at you with giant eyes after peeing all over your favorite shirt. Unfortunately, Paul Rudd doesn’t come off like much of anything except a stock character. He’s Misguided Hero #4 Who Has To Learn to Be Himself and Not Mock the Guy Who Makes Dead Mouse Dolls.
Their relationship leads to the true focal point of the movie – a dinner party where the stakes are equally high for Tim to win the multi-million dollar client, for Barry to stand up to his bullying co-worker Therman (Zach Galifianakis), and for the weirdo with the female dummy to creep everyone out. The movie does its math correctly, and the destructive power of one idiot is amplified by seven.
There are some truly disturbing, shockingly funny moments (particularly when Barry hands a note written on a napkin to a wealthy possible investor), and they are welcomed after a fairly average start. The laughs are there, but the film is not much more than what it needs to be – a clever distraction that’s as digestible as the popcorn it comes with.
The Upside: Steve Carell doing his best Harold Lloyd, Paul Rudd doing his best Paul Rudd, and a few great comedic set ups that are milked for every laugh out there.
The Downside: A fairly average story, too much downtime between the funny stuff, and an opening that looks like it came from a robot programmed to write modern comedies.
On the Side: Were you aware that this film is a remake of a French film that Rob Hunter really enjoyed despite having to read the entire movie? It’s true!