On DVD: Dinner for Schmucks

The French film that “Dinner for Schmucks” draws its inspiration from, “Le Diner de Cons,” was successful because it made us seriously ponder who the real idiot was — the up-and- coming businessman or the dolt he must invite to a business dinner. With “Schmucks,” you seriously ponder if the real idiot has been you for watching the thing in the first place. Good news is if you can make it through the bumbling first half, “Schmucks” turns itself around in almost redeeming fashion.

Paul Rudd plays Tim and Steve Carell plays Barry. The former works at an Equity Firm and seeks a big promotion; the latter works for the IRS and makes dioramas featuring dead mice dressed as people. Their paths cross because after hitting Barry with his car, Tim realizes he’s a perfect fit for the “idiot dinner” that his boss has invited him to, one that he learns will have implications for his future at the firm. Unfortunately, Barry is a bit of a leech, and what Tim expects to be a brief dinner that he can forget about later turns into 48 hours of mind- numbing stupidity.

Not until Tim gets stuck deep in the shenanigans does any real humor come out of “Schmucks.” At first, writers Michael Handelman and David Guion (co-writers of the barely seen comedy “The Ex” starring Jason Bateman and Zach Braff) determine that Barry’s idiocy justifies him instigating the film’s events with any absurd action they deem helpful to the story. While we learn eventually just how clueless Barry really is, his character had not been established as so socially inconsiderate as to instant message with Tim’s stalker Darla (Lucy Punch), the event that sets everything into motion. Once that snowball gets rolling, the situational comedy that ends up working does come out of it, but that singular action was weakly constructed, topping the long and bad highlight reel of the first act.

The moment that turns around “Dinner for Schmucks” completely comes at an important business meeting between Tim and a Swiss billionaire looking to invest with the firm. Tim’s expecting a letdown because his girlfriend, Julie (Stephanie Szostak), who was supposed to attend with him to talk art with the investor’s wife, has walked out on Tim, partially thanks to Barry. In hopes of saving the day, Barry recruits Darla the psycho to pose as Julie without telling Tim about it. Barry and Darla join the meeting, which doesn’t go quite how you’d expect.

Although spurred by the recurring “accidental cell phone switch” gag, the key is that the scene gets you to think “wow, Barry really is a total idiot!” and the whole thing will likely crumble beneath Tim, including his job and relationship. Finally, Carell’s Barry starts to feel like a real character. Although not a cure-all for the film’s ills, that establishment works wonders on your ability to merely enjoy it at all.

We’ve known for a while that Carell can do the idiot thing. From “Anchorman” to seven seasons of “The Office” on NBC, no one does the clueless guy better or to greater comic effect. He churns Barry into a fairly likable numbskull, but the character operates as Michael Scott on “The Office” and Brick Tamland from “Anchorman” combined into one schizophrenic person. At one moment he’s sweetly screwing everything up, the next he’s laughing at a chimpanzee on television. Given the writing, it’s not entirely evident just how stupid (or what kind of stupid) Barry is supposed to be. Only toward the end does it take shape. Director Jay Roach (“Meet the Parents,” “Austin Powers”) also finds his groove here too.

“Schmucks” loosely follows the French film, the big change being the actual dinner itself, which never happens in the original. Here, it serves as the last-ditch effort for laughs by introducing bizarre peripheral characters in the form of the other idiot guests, the highlight being a woman who acts as a psychic medium for dead animals. Some of the components of this finale are meant to serve the individual subplots for Barry and Tim, which along with a few laughs make it worthwhile. We learn, for example, that Barry’s wife left him because, as he puts it, “he lost the clitoris.” Jokes aside, it’s part of what allows Tim to see Barry’s humanity and puts a nice touch on their relationship, which is the heart of the story and what made “Le Diner de Cons” so terrific.

Ultimately, however, the setup does the payoff no justice and “Schmucks” never fully washes out that first lengthy bad taste. So for different reasons, the question of true idiocy remains unanswered — or simply that we’re all idiots, including Hollywood.

2.5/5 Stars

Dinner for Schmucks
Directed by Jay Roach
Written by Michael Handelman and David Guion, Francis Veber (“Le Diner de Cons”)
Starring: Paul Rudd, Steve Carell, Stephanie Szostak, Zach Galifianakis


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