2 / 5 stars
by Norm Schrager, Meet In the Lobby
If you’ve seen the trailer, the French original, or even just the title, watching the comedy Dinner For Schmucks feels like a ripoff. All the right pieces are in the right places — Steve Carell, Paul Rudd, Zach Galifianakis, director Jay Roach — but they’re contributing to a movie with a structure that lets them and us down.
The problem is how long we must wait for the plot to kick in. The central idea: A collection of social misfits, hilariously and surrealistically dumb, are invited to a regularly scheduled dinner party, where they are ridiculed and judged by the partygoers. In the right hands, this get-together is a potential goldmine of insanity. But here, it practically burns a hole in the celluloid waiting to arrive. First, we have to slog through the misguided makings of a buddy movie, one that tries too hard to yank laughs out of its antsy audience.
On paper, this looks like a scream. Paul Rudd is Tim, a working-class moe with a chance to leap a level up the ol’ corporate ladder by playing the dinner game. Just as his conscience is about to steer him away from such cruelty, he drives his car into Barry (Carell), a jilted taxidermist who photographs wistful, romantic scenes using well-dressed dead mice as his subjects. Tim quickly realizes that Barry’s a clueless simpleton, asks him to dinner, and thus, casts his die.
Much of the dialogue and many of the gags work, especially with guys as skilled as Carell and Rudd (the latter, a grossly underrated comedic actor). But the laughs seem to operate independently, on disconnected levels of silliness. When a psychotic ex (the fantastic Lucy Punch) shows up to Tim’s house, she gets into an impromptu bottle-smashing duel with Barry that feels original and unexpected. Soon after, as the new buddies head over to the lady lair of a pompous artist (Flight of the Conchords‘ Jemaine Clement), the action gets cliche, with Barry trying to hide after breaking into the guy’s loft. There’s too much time spent on the borderline of smart and silly; the longer we’re there, the more trying the attempt can feel.
As Barry drives Tim nuts, we get into their lives’ details — and we’re still not even close to the dinner table. There’s a business lunch scene ripe for a destruction of manners, but it’s not the titular dinner. (It’s even used to confuse in the film’s TV spots.) Although we’re told the dinner occurs regularly, we get to see it once. Just once.
Which means Roach gets one shot to establish the dinner, lay out the players, and make the magic happen. It’s not enough. We’ve already gone too far down the character development road to simply concentrate on craziness; especially when screenwriters David Guion and Michael Handelman (The Ex) prefer we soften up and feel sorry for Barry. It’s an unfortunate, out-of-place decision.
Galifianakis is a highlight, at the height of his shameless lunacy as Thurman, an IRS manager convinced he can mentally control others. This is 100% effort for the childish imp, who wears Thurman’s brutal contempt for others like a Boy Scout badge. Not all of Galifianakis’ choices hit, but none of them is boring.
Forget any wild or daring payoff to Dinner For Schmucks. If you want more, rent the original The Dinner Game. And if you really want to appreciate a great buddy movie with Paul Rudd, we happily recommend I Love You, Man.