Upwardly mobile: Steve Carell rises above the material in 'Dinner for Schmucks'

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 30, 2010; C01

Forget the oil spill, WikiLeaks and Lindsay Lohan in lockdown. This is the summer of Steve Carell. We're just along for the ride.

After a springtime teaser with "Date Night," the frenetic but occasionally inspired "romaction" comedy Carell starred in with Tina Fey, the actor staked out precious summertime turf unequivocally with "Despicable Me," a G-rated animated comedy that has become one of the season's sturdiest tent poles. Although word has been swirling for months that Carell would soon leave his Thursday-night comedy "The Office," NBC made the news official this week, just days before the actor's new comedy, "Dinner for Schmucks," arrived in theaters. That convergence -- of Carell departing television the same week he has a movie out -- elegantly captures the emerging new-media dynamic that has made Carell perhaps the first bona fide platform-neutral star.

Like so many of the movies Carell has headlined over the past five years, "Dinner for Schmucks" -- despite a title Yiddish speakers understandably find nastily off-color -- will most likely put tushies in seats. Carell's latest lovable loser, a lonely IRS agent named Barry, in many ways reprises and elaborates on the sincere, slightly dim nerd he played in "The 40-Year-Old Virgin." But instead of a boyish naif, he plays a middle-aged sad sack, who creates sentimental tableaux using stuffed dead mice that he dresses up in miniature costumes and wigs.

When Barry meets Tim, an up-and-coming executive played by Paul Rudd, he thinks he's found a bromantic soul mate: His eyes, huge behind wire-rim glasses, widen and melt into lambent pools of adoration every time he looks at his newfound friend. As for Tim, he's been assigned by his boss to bring the biggest idiot he can find to his house for dinner, where he'll compete with his co-workers for bagging and tagging the biggest loser. In Barry -- mice, clip-on tie and all -- he's found a sure ticket to a coveted promotion.

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Like the 1998 French farce on which it's based, most of the antic tomfoolery in "Dinner for Schmucks" takes place during the run-up to the titular meal, during which Barry's ham-handed attempts at friendship with Tim result in an ever more mortifying series of mistaken identities, fatal miscalculations and physical mishaps. (Unlike the French version, this one actually culminates with the dinner itself.) The humor is broad, slapsticky and unmemorable -- there isn't one joke or line that leaps to mind as especially witty -- but Carell and Rudd make it work, eliciting steady laughs through the sheer lightness of their beings. Carell manages to pirouette gracefully over even the lowest bar, infusing an otherwise irritating and pathetic character with improbable pathos. Thus, like the guests at the climactic party, "Dinner for Schmucks" invites the audience to point and laugh at Barry's nerdy obsessions; through Carell's absolving sweetness, we then get to celebrate his character's most pitiable flaws as his only means of coping with a sad and empty life.

With the glasses and a prosthetic overbite, Carell makes a modest attempt at physical transformation to play Barry, but the character is almost indistinguishable from the clueless Everymen that Carell has made a specialty of playing since burrowing into the pop-culture consciousness as Michael Scott on "The Office" and Andy Stitzer in "The 40-Year-Old Virgin." And that initial one-two punch made Carell both an embodiment and a beneficiary of the changes that media have undergone in the 21st century.

When "The Office" began in 2005, the show -- a remake of a British program cherished by a small cadre of connoisseurs -- didn't immediately take off. Its edgy, mockumentary style, oblique humor and subtle sidelong glances "down the pipe" (showbiz speak for directly to the camera) were completely at odds with the laugh-track sitcoms Americans had long made their preferred prime-time desserts. At that point, Carell was known only to fans of Jon Stewart's "Daily Show" and Dana Carvey's short-lived foray into sketch comedy in the 1990s.

But during the unpromising first season of "The Office," NBC knew that Carell would appear the following summer in Judd Apatow's "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" -- distributed, as it happened, by NBC's parent company, Universal. And if test screenings and tracking numbers were any indication, they knew the movie would hit. In a burst of synergistic enlightenment, the network renewed "The Office." The movie -- which Carell co-wrote and produced -- was indeed a huge hit, and Carell became an overnight star at the tender age of 42.

In addition to benefiting from Carell's "40-Year-Old Virgin" star turn, "The Office" became one of the first shows viewers watched by way of iTunes and Hulu, downloading episodes on their phones, handheld devices and office computers. Meanwhile, Carell had enlisted with Apatow's rep company and unlikely revolution, one that took what was once the purview of female audiences -- the romantic comedy -- and made it a genre safe for the teenage boys and 20-ish men whose moviegoing habits (go early, go often) Hollywood craves.

Carell isn't the only Apatovian star -- the mini-empire has also made Rudd, Seth Rogen and Jason Segel into mold-smashing leading men, to name a few. But Carell alone has proved qualified to inhabit and dominate a world in which big-screen fare is likely to find its ultimate end use on a phone, and TV shows are increasingly watched on 72-inch home screens. It's probably no accident that Carell's early supporting performances were set on TV shows, whether in the feature adaptation of "Bewitched" or playing a fictional TV weatherman in "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy"; even his congressman character in the hit "Evan Almighty" started out as a newscaster, in "Bruce Almighty" four years earlier.

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Carell has made some gratifying forays into less predictable territory. He played it straight as a gay uncle in the 2006 sleeper hit "Little Miss Sunshine" and delivered a soulful, unmannered performance in the uneven romantic dramedy "Dan in Real Life." But for the most part, he has stuck to mainstream meal tickets, with results that have been by turn bland and blindingly funny. His work with Fey in "Date Night" neatly demonstrates the quandary. Although the duo ignite fleeting, funny sparks of improvisatory genius in the movie, they're quickly extinguished by loud, chaotic chase scenes. What's more, "Date Night" was filmed on cheesy high-definition digital video, making it look like a daytime soap opera slapped haphazardly on the screen.

Aesthetically speaking, "Dinner for Schmucks" isn't much better. Director Jay Roach, of the "Meet the Parents" oeuvre, hews faithfully to the blobby close-up-heavy conventions of industrial-grade filmmaking, occasionally allowing his actors the only moderately more commodious medium shot. Carell doesn't chafe at the cramped quarters -- indeed, he manages to overcome the uninspired direction, contrived plotting and unsavory premise of "Dinner for Schmucks" and infuse it with a surprising degree of genuine feeling. It remains to be seen whether we've seen Carell's full range as a comedian or as an actor, but for now his improvisatory reflexes, instinctive command of the quick take and nimble navigation of a multi-format world make him the perfect big star for pictures that got small.

Dinner for Schmucks

** 1/2

(109 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for sequences of crude and sexual content, some partial nudity and profanity.

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