Movie for schmucks

Michael Phillips | Boulder Weekly

Dinner for Schmucks is a remake for schlemiels, or at least easy marks when it comes to formulaic Hollywood comedy. But the film’s peculiar sluggishness and nagging hypocrisy probably won’t get in the way of its popularity.

It has a lot of funny people going for it. The most valuable is Jemaine Clement, the sonorous New Zealander who slayed in HBO’s Flight of the Conchords and who even managed to make a sustained Michael York impersonation pay off in the recent Gentlemen Broncos. Here he plays a supporting role as an outlandishly pretentious artist who’s catnip to the ladies, and whose selfregard is like a ZIP code unto itself.

Also in the supporting ranks, Zach Galifianakis plays a mindreading Internal Revenue Service schmuck who wears a dickey with inappropriate clothing (though of course the dickey is not easy to pull off in any instance).

In the leads, the guys on the poster: Steve Carell and Paul Rudd. Take a moment to review all these two have done to make us laugh, in everything from Anchorman to The 40-Year-Old Virgin, often without anything more than a sly vocal inflection. They are two of the wittiest performers in movies today.

So, what’s my problem? We have here not a remake but a stupidization of a very good French farce, Francis Veber’s The Dinner Game (1998). In Dinner for Schmucks, the head of a private equity firm hosts a monthly soiree for which his employees must bring an idiot to dinner, and the best idiot wins. Rudd’s character, a junior member of the firm trying to make good, feels conflicted about this, but into his life (and off the front of his car) bounces a pluperfect dolt, played by Carell in capped teeth, Dumb and Dumber hair and strangulated voice. His pathetic nature is signified by his obsession: With dead mice he creates diorama-like scenes, from history or his own relational train wrecks, and presents them as highly personal works of art. Schmuck!

In Veber’s original version, the victim cluelessly yet systematically destroyed the life and social standing of his victimizer, and the comeuppance was richly deserved. The tone of the French original was dry yet sharp, skating a fine line between embracing the humiliation of its premise and exposing the cruelty of its proponents. The remake trips all over itself trying to make sense of the characters and a new storyline. The character played by Rudd is a little schmucky but basically nice, wanting only to give his undemanding fiancée (Stephanie Szostak) everything she ever wanted, even though she says love is enough. So. No tension there.

Carell’s performance is all tension, a rare strenuous misstep. The character he’s trying to play in Director Jay Roach’s film isn’t a consistent comic creation; he’s simply a collection of rube-like behavioral tics. What’s an actor to do, with Roach hammering home the obviousness at every turn while failing to propel the scenes forward? Carell pulls every variation he can on the theme of social brainlessness, but it’s an uphill battle. The Dinner Game was based on a stage play; that didn’t slow down the French film version. Dinner for Schmucks runs a half-hour longer than The Dinner Game, and you feel every stagey minute.

I think I’ll be in the minority on this one, but you know comedy: Nothing’s more personal. I found the heart-tugs at the climax almost grotesque. The French original wasn’t afraid to find subtlety within cruelty. The schmucked-up American edition does the chortling for us and then, as an afterthought, scolds us for laughing. Or, in my case, not.

—MCT, Tribune Newspapers Respond: