Dinner for Schmucks (2010)
Director: Jay Roach
Starring: Steve Carell, Paul Rudd, Jemaine Clement
Running Time: 1 hr, 54 min
Rated: PG-13

Review by Brother Reed

If you laughed at the trailer for Dinner for Schmucks, you’re probably a fan of Steve Carell. And who isn’t? The man is one of the most gifted comedians working in film or television today. The American version of The Office, a fixture of TV these days, got off the ground almost entirely due to his involvement. He’s given a boost to other comedy bigwigs like Will Ferrell, Jim Carrey, and Judd Apatow. You know you can expect a completely committed (not to mention totally bonkers) performance from him every time. The good news about his new starring vehicle, Dinner for Schmucks, is that Carell delivers on those expectations once again. The bad news is that the movie is much less consistent. In fact, it’s downright bipolar. I can’t remember the last time I sat in a theater going from chuckles to sighs and frowns so quickly or so often.

This disparity is disappointing because I would have loved to just laugh along with the likes of Rudd, Carell and Galifianakis, but the movie continually frustrated my attempts to do so. With a greatly talented comic cast in full wacky mode, there are plenty of laughs to be had; but they don’t come without a catch. The premise of Dinner for Schmucks is that bored rich executives entertain each other (and in a highly questionable business practice, apparently promote employees) by holding a dinner, to which each employee brings a guest. Supposedly, the guest is to be someone of unique talent who stands to win a prize for best-in-show. The dinner of course is a farce, and their guests are people they think are morons. The fun is in seeing them unknowingly humiliate themselves. While this is something that could certainly make a good comedy, the problems are two-fold. For one, anyone with a conscience knows that such a thing is horribly distasteful; and secondly, it makes for a pretty short movie.

As a result, the movie is largely padding, the dinner in question being the final act. The rest of the movie sets things in motion. We meet Tim (Paul Rudd), a businessman with a beautiful, successful girlfriend he wants to impress and an unscrupulous boss he also wants to impress, so he can get a promotion and then impress his beautiful successful girlfriend some more. Tim gets himself noticed when he helps his company land a possible deal with a Swiss high-roller, but he needs to find a real bozo to show off at his boss’s dinner. He accidentally hits Barry (Steve Carell) with his car, and discovers that the man is an astoundingly dense taxidermist who photographs his dead rodents in pristine artistic settings (this sounds weird but the whimsical opening credits actually show it to be a skillful and creative pastime). Seeing his opportunity, he invites Barry to the dinner. Of course things are never so simple – Tim runs into Barry again and his life begins to unravel What About Bob? style. Maybe I’m just getting older, but I think that Bill Murray and Richard Dreyfuss forever cured me of being entertained by watching someone’s world collapse around his ears.

It looks like these mice have already had their last supper.

What follows is a colossal jumble of “outrageous” sitcom misunderstandings and improbable coincidences, throughout which every character (not just the patently dumb ones) make horrible, stupid decisions. Barry we accept as stupid, and so his errors in judgment are often funny, even when they land Tim and everyone he knows in awkward social predicaments. The problem is that every time this movie does something fresh and funny, it does something else lame, cliched and annoying. The plot runs on contrivances (certain characters showing up just in time to overhear crucial dialog or catch someone else in the worst possible position) and is full of over-played scenarios. In a pivotal scene, Tim is at dinner with his star clients when Barry shows up, a stalker ex-flame in haul to cover for his girlfriend’s absence. Any sane person would simply explain to his clients that there was a miscommunication, excuse himself and dismiss his unruly guests. Of course, if he did that, we wouldn’t be treated to an excruciating scene in which he is forced to propose to a girl he loathes, losing his expensive engagement ring and his girlfriend’s trust in the process. A similar setup worked much better in the screwball gem What’s Up, Doc? where the main character was simply overrun by Barbara Streisand’s lovable tramp and the script for the scene was full of witty banter rather than forced awkwardness. In Schmucks, the entire scene is a severe misstep and illustrates partially why the movie doesn’t work.

A bigger problem stems from a mishandling of the premise, as well as the character of Barry. The film decides to give its main character a moral dilemma about mocking an idiot for sport, but it wants us to laugh at said idiot all through the movie without giving it a second thought? Sure, we know he’s being played by the very aware Steve Carell who’s made his name in roles like this, but that isn’t the point. Barry is made out to be, as Tim describes him, a sweet guy who just happens to leave destruction in his wake. Can we laugh at his antics? Should we? At times we hate him for what he’s doing to Tim’s life, but we also know Tim is a jerk for using Barry. Our sympathy is split. Despite being on the slow side, Barry’s art is actually rather impressive. He is shown not only to be legitimately talented and good-hearted, but also very much a victim of the others in his life.

In a climactic scene Barry admits that he lost his wife to his employer, Therman (Zach Galifianakis, also playing a huge dupe), due to sexual incompetence. He uses his intimate knowledge of their affair to embarrass Therman and so win a short-sighted victory, as he reveals that he was hiding under the bed while his wife cheated on him in their own house. That is a terrible, tragic event made all the more unsavory by the fact that Barry doesn’t even seem to recognize how much he’s been wronged. And yet, doesn’t he know? His mouse-terpieces look eerily similar to him and his wife; it seems he’s expressing his longing to restore their innocent happiness. The whole scenario is profoundly depressing but is played for laughs and never addressed with any tenderness. When the audience is asked to laugh at this, it places us in the company of the bad guys, making us complicit in the actions of morally bankrupt men. If the audience feels guilty, it keeps them from enjoying the scene. This is effective if it’s intended, but here it doesn’t lead to any kind of catharsis, resolution, or Aesop. It’s just an extremely insensitive joke. I expect low blows in a movie with this premise, and I’m not above laughing at the unfortunate – in fact there’s a blind fencer at dinner who has some very amusing moments – but I wonder if this movie is fully aware of its inherent contradictions. You can’t have it both ways: either make a comedy with a heart that treats its characters with humanity (Judd Apatow’s movies do this very well despite their raunchiness) or go for the throat with black satire. Trying to tie both of those up in a screwball package just results in mayhem.

“Are you pondering what I’m pondering?”

Furthermore, some gags that are initially funny become tedious. Jemaine Clement has a hilarious bit as a self-obsessed artist. The first scene at his exhibit is an uproarious skewering of the kind of absurdity often seen in that community. Eventually he starts to wear out his welcome (he’s essentially a one-note gag) but does become amusing again near the end. Almost every seemingly innocuous or random gag (for example, one about eating pudding) turns sexual, as if the writers have no idea what else might be funny, other than wanton destruction (hint: it isn’t). Sex has been the stuff of humor for as long as anyone can remember, but does everything have go that way?

Most of the funniest moments in Dinner for Schmucks are more subtle. When Barry opens Tim’s car door into a sign post, the audience laughed because it was the kind of bumbling thing people do all the time, and it fit Barry’s haphazard character. It was also a bit of insult-to-injury since Tim is already put out and the ding in the car door is just the icing on the cake. Neither character acknowledges the door incident – it just happens, we laugh, and then the story moves on. Later, because the dent in the door wasn’t obvious enough, Tim’s slighted stalker takes a metal post to his expensive cruiser and batters it six ways from Sunday. That scene isn’t funny, it’s just cringe-worthy. We’re sad to see the car destroyed, but where’s the comedy? Other great scenes include Barry’s simple misphrasings, e.g. “You may think I’m a dreamer, but I’m not.” Classic stuff! It’s too bad there weren’t more of those moments, but writing clever dialog is harder than smashing things.

I know I’m being very critical. The truth is I liked close to half of the jokes in the movie, but came out of the theater feeling unenthused. I laughed quite a few times, but not enough to make up for the times I sat scowling at what was being trotted across the screen as humor. Maybe if the movie got off its moral high horse and stopped reminding us that we’re terrible people laughing at terrible things, the experience would go more smoothly. As it is, it’s just too uneven to recommend.