Make a date with a lovable loser
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, July 30, 2010
"Dinner for Schmucks" has already raised hackles in the Yiddish-speaking community for the breathtakingly offensive epithet in its title (and it's not "dinner"). But it turns out that this comedy of humiliation, starring Paul Rudd and Steve Carell, isn't nearly as off-putting as it might have been. Rudd plays Tim, an ambitious young executive desperate to impress his art-dealer girlfriend (the fetching Stephanie Szostak), who is invited by his icy boss (Bruce Greenwood) to attend one of his regular "dinners for idiots." Each guest is supposed to bring the dumbest, most pathetic idiot he can find; the most pitiful plus-one wins. ("No mimes; it's a cliche," one co-worker warns.)
When Tim literally collides with Barry (Carell), the game is afoot. Buck-toothed and goggle-eyed, Barry makes neurotically detailed tableaux with stuffed dead mice. When he meets the blandly affable Tim, he becomes as creepily, bromantically inclined as Jim Carrey in "The Cable Guy." But instead of going dark, "Dinner for Schmucks" keeps it breezy, with Barry embroiling Tim in a twisty-tangly series of ever-more-mortifying mishaps. The fallout includes a debilitated back, a sundered romance, a reunion with a sexually predatory stalker (played with burlesque brio by Lucy Punch) and an IRS audit.
That's all before dinner. Jay Roach has adapted Francis Veber's 1998 French farce "Le Diner de Cons" with the same, tired close-up, close-up, medium-shot rhythm that characterizes his "Meet the Parents" movies. There's no doubt that the raggedy narrative propels what is essentially one broad set piece toward another. But Rudd and Carell have just the charisma, alertness and dexterity to make "Dinner for Schmucks" work. (Rudd is particularly winning, especially when he battles that bad back.)
And the movie benefits from piquant spice by way of scene-stealing supporting players, including "Flight of the Conchords' " Jemaine Clement as a fatuous artist and Zach Galifianakis as a telepathic IRS agent.
In truth, "Dinner for Schmucks" is misnamed, since most of the movie's antic slapstick energy derives from the eventful run-up to the main event. The climactic party itself often feels like an awkward, unevenly paced come-down. That's also when the cruel premise of the film threatens to curdle into mean-spirited toxicity. But cheery humanism prevails in "Dinner for Schmucks," as does the cast as they overcome undistinguished direction, an unsavory premise and some painfully forced material involving computer mishaps, mistaken identities and at least one petty crime. "Dinner for Schmucks" may be as broad as the proverbial groaning board, but Rudd and Carell bring out its most toothsome delights. They transform an otherwise disposable meal into something worth savoring.
Contains sequences of crude and sexual content, partial nudity and profanity.