3.5 stars (PG-13)
After a sneak preview of Dinner for Schmucks earlier this week, a young man asked me what I thought of the movie. My response was, "I laughed a lot. I love Paul Rudd and Steve Carell. The funny stuff, the mean parts and the romantic subplot clanged against each other, but I still laughed a lot." I asked about his reaction and he said, "I thought it was terrible! I love Paul Rudd too, but I can't stand Steve Carell." Your reaction to the comedy will likely depend in large part on whether or not you currently enjoy what Carell does. I'm pretty tired of the whole comedy-of-discomfort thing in general, but Carell still works for me because he invests his characters with enough of a childlike quality that I feel sympathy for them even when I'm cringing at their actions.
Dinner for Schmucks is a remake of Francis Veber's 1998 film Le diner de cons(The Dinner Game). Both movies deal with a rising executive invited by upper management to a very unusual gathering. Each person attending the dinner must bring the most outrageous idiot he can find. Whoever brings the biggest jerk wins. The hook, of course, is that the real boobs are the people participating in such a cruel stunt. The original French film was edgier and harder to watch. This version is Americanized - softened - with the rising exec disturbed by the idea of the party. Also, Dinner for Schmucks shows the actual dinner, which the original did not do.
Paul Rudd plays Tim, the conflicted up-and-comer. The very funny Rudd plays straight-man here and does a beautiful job, deftly mixing slapstick, deadpan reactions, outrage, panic and, at just the right moments, a welcome "screw the consequences" sensibility. Carell plays Barry, the clueless buck-toothed IRS agent who spends his spare time making elaborate dioramas using stuffed mice (the dioramas are so well-done that the dead mice aspect doesn't seem all that creepy). Is the Barry character over-the-top? Completely, but his childlike naivety saved the day for me.
The film is a primarily an odd couple comedy and watching Rudd and Carell play off each other is a treat. During the early part of the story, the nasty goings-on at the office feel like merely an unwieldy conceit to throw the two actors together. The concept pays off later, though. The romantic subplot between Tim and his would-be fiancée Julie (Stephanie Szostak) is tacked-on to make the flick more palatable to American viewers. Director Jay Roach (Meet the Fockers) simply jams all the elements of the movie together.
Besides the Carell and Rudd show, the biggest pleasures in the production come from the supporting cast. Kristen Schaal is great fun as Tim's agreeably brassy personal assistant. Unfortunately, she simply disappears midway through the movie. David Walliams, the taller member of the Little Britain duo, is very funny as a quirky Swiss corporate giant, and Zach Galifianakis contributes some nice shtick as a "mentalist" who messes with Barry's poor little noggin. Best of all is Jemaine Clement, playing an insanely self-absorbed artist whose approach to romance and sex is deliciously icky. Imagine Russell Brand's uncle and you'll have an idea of what to expect.
Steve Carell is leaving The Office when his contract is over at the end of the upcoming season. Good move. I hope he's careful about the quality and the quantity of the film roles he chooses. I remember when Will Ferrell turned up in Wedding Crashers and instead of smiling, I found myself thinking, "oh no, not him again!" I don't want that to happen to Carell. He is delightful in Despicable Me and manages to shine in the ungainly, but damn funny, Dinner for Schmucks. Hopefully, he's smart enough to lay low for a spell while most us still appreciate him.