Elevate Difference

Dinner for Schmucks

In the formulaic plots that have developed in mainstream comedies over the last several years the re-occurring theme seems to be male idiocy. The Will Ferrells and Steve Carrells of the comedy world have delighted in creating man-children characters who don’t exist on the normal plane of human intelligence. They come equipped with stock sex jokes, like not understanding the female anatomy, or overconfidence that their incorrect knowledge of basic vocabulary is accurate. As audience members we then feel forced to laugh at their idiocy as we revel in our own perceived genius.

In the latest formulaic mainstream comedy Dinner for Schmucks the stupid culminates into a festival of idiots. It’s as if a team of Hollywood screenwriters and comedians have been sitting around with these amusing character creations that didn’t fit into any film and they devised a shaky story just to insert them into a film. The plot for Dinner for Schmucks is essentially non-existent featuring moment after moment of nonsensicalness and a finale that leaves the viewer wondering what the exact message was. Despite all of that, the film manages to be hilarious enough to keep any schmuck’s attention.

Paul Rudd stars as Tim, an eager business analyst for a major financial planning corporation who has just come up with the proposal that could give him the promotion he’s been waiting for. His soon-to-be fiancé, Julie (Stephanie Szostak), has just been asked to curate a major art exhibit and things couldn’t be going better for the couple. Tim is asked into the head of his company’s office and told about the proposal that could land him the promotion he deserves–he needs to find an idiot and bring him/her to dinner at his boss’s house so that all the other employees can make fun of him/her.

Enter Steve Carrell as Barry, an IRS agent and mouse taxidermy enthusiast who doesn’t know what “curate” means and is unable to detect sarcasm. Against Julie’s adamant declinations, Tim decides to take Barry to the infamous “Dinner for Winners” and use him as the catalyst for his promotion. Along the way Barry gets intertwined in Tim’s personal life, straining his relationship with Julie and his opportunities to look good at the office causing Tim to question his career choice and his values.

Unlike other mainstream comedies where the stupid characters are ever-present and unbalanced, Dinner for Schmucks creates two teams right from the start–the idiots and the everyday characters. Each time a new character is introduced you find out which side they are on–if they’re quirky and interesting, they’re a schmuck; if they’re plain and undeveloped, they’re probably a “normal” person.

Paul Rudd is his usual sardonic and sensitive protagonist, similar to his roles in I Love You, Man and Role Models. His natural sweetness makes his predicaments with Barry almost unbelievable as he attempts to act like a self-important asshole. Rudd isn’t as natural at that type of role as say Ron Livingston, who ironically has seemed to play nothing but corporate jerks since his breakthrough role in Office Space.

Steve Carrell is only mildly funny in one of his worst performances of his career. Unlike in many of his other comedies, he doesn’t find any layers to give to Barry and even the subplot about his broken heart over his ex-wife is easily forgettable.

The comedic highlights of the film are Zach Galifianakis who plays Barry’s faux-telepathic IRS boss and Jemaine Clement who plays a self-absorbed artist. Galifianakis is the new king of stupid. His humor is better suited for sketch comedy than feature films because of its lack of depth, but he’s so hilarious that it is easy to forgive his misgivings. Clement’s background in improvisation shines through as you sense the other actors trying to hold back laughter with each witty and unpredictable line that he delivers.

The only other commendable performances come from the limited female roles in the film. The drop dead gorgeous Stephanie Szostak has one of her largest feature film roles as Julie and she makes the character easy to fall for. Lucy Punch also has a limited, but hilarious role as the off-the-rails Darla, Tim’s stalker ex-girlfriend who throws a wrench in his plans.

As the film approaches the ending one wonders what the message is as every attempt at meaning or depth was bungled by director Jay Roach and screenwriters David Guion and Michael Handelman. However, you may just leave the cinema quoting your favorite lines from the ridiculousness that just ensued.

Cross-posted from Film Misery

Written by: Alex Carlson, August 9th 2010
Tags: comedy, film, humor, men

Just an FYI- The original French movie that this was based on, Le Diner de Con, actually was pretty funny. A lot of the jokes from the original would be untranslatable, or at least would lose their funny in the translation. This is no excuse for the new version to be crappy, of course. But maybe it explains some of the weirdness or off-feeling of the characters.