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Rapid Review: Dinner for Schmucks

August 4, 2010



Dinner for Schmucks is directed by Jay Roach, who also brought you the Austin Powers films and Meet the Parents.  This has been heavily advertised on both the screen and the page the past few weeks, much to my annoyance.  The Hollywood trend of promoting films with such ridiculous  taglines as “by the studio that brought you (fill in the blank with bland blockbuster here)” isn’t really compelling.  Unless you really do pick which movie you would like to see based on the fact that it was produced by the same studio who made Road Trip

 Back to the topic at hand.  Jay Roach’s previous film Meet the Parents was a step up from the usual gross-out, predictable comedy, mostly because of a fine-tuned script and solid performances by Ben Stiller and Robert DeNiro.  It had a disappointing, meandering sequel, however, which left a lot to be desired in terms of quality control.

In Dinner for Schmucks, Roach again assembles a cast of capable actors, including he of the everyman face, Paul Rudd, and the ubiquitous Steve Carrell.  Both are masters of comedic timing (Rudd doesn’t get enough credit for the great work he did in Role Models and Knocked Up).  Both can manage to be believable and hilarious simultaneously without resorting to the Robin Williams school of buffoonery.

Tim and Barry meet cute

The premise of the movie is that Rudd’s character, Tim, needs to impress his bosses by bringing the biggest “schmuck” to a dinner held by a select group of rich and powerful men who only exist in the movies.   These robber barons/snobbish execs/towers of industry host a “Dinner for Winners” at which each jerk of a executive tries to bring the most intolerably wacky guest to impress his peers.  When Tim meets amateur taxidermist/artist Barry (Steve Carell) he knows he can win this challenge hands down.

It’s a great premise, and the movie is a re-make of a French film that is itself based on a play.  Maybe it’s too removed from the source material.  Something went wrong along the way.

Where Roach fails his mission to entertain his audience lies in his tactics.  If Dinner for Schmucks had been directed by someone more intent on an intrepid comedy of manners or a farce about social class (I nominate fellow K.U. alumnus Neil LaBute) the movie might have worked. 

Essentially, Schmucks wants to humiliate its main characters mercilessly, then preach to the audience about the errors of such behavior.  In a better film, we might have dispensed with the varnished happy ending and scaled back, tame slapstick.  The problem with Schmucks is that the jokes lack wit and the zingers need claws.  There’s no bite, and therefore no payoff.

Rudd and Carell make do with what they’ve got, and I have no doubt that the movie would have been a mess in less capable actors’ hands.  Still, it reminds me of a basic cable movie that’s been “edited for content”.  There are a few laughs, mostly thanks to Barry’s unique masterpieces, but many of the jokes fall flat or thud harmlessly off of the safety net that is David Guion and Michael Handelman’s screenplay.

the title dinner

I felt sorry for many of the minor players in the movie. Zach Galifianakis, who was hilarious in The Hangover and the best part about Youth in Revolt, here plays one of the title’s “Schmucks”.  He’s like a more fine-tuned, deadpan Jack Black.  Alas, it is not enough to elevate Dinner for Schmucks to “epicurial” (pardon the pun) status.

If you can still find Get Him to the Greek playing at your local cineplex, it’s a much better choice for an honest, balls to the wall, effective slapstick comedy.  Skip Dinner for Schmucks.  There are too many appetizers and not enough just desserts.

Overall Grade: C –

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