Friday, July 30, 2010

Movie Review: "Dinner for Schmucks"

The titular event in "Dinner for Schmucks" is actually referred to as a "dinner for idiots," in which a group of businessmen invite the most bizarre, off-the-wall folks they can find to a fancy feast and proceed to mock them.

I'm guessing "Dinner for Idiots" would have been a tough title to market. The word "schmuck" feels more innocent, lacking the mean-spirited connotation that comes with "idiot." I have no idea if the film was originally called "Dinner for Idiots," but it wouldn't surprise me if Dreamworks' marketing gurus changed the title to something nicer.

That might actually explain some of the reasons why "Dinner for Schmucks" isn't quite the farcical feast it could be. Here's a film with a skilled director and a fantastic cast that could have been a merciless, fast-paced screwball romp. Instead, "Dinner" manages to wrangle a few laughs and chuckles but feels oddly defanged, meandering and too, well, nice.

Tim (Paul Rudd) is a low-level financial analyst given the opportunity for his big break. The catch is that his boss (Bruce Greenwood) makes the promotion contingent on attending the dinner described above. Admitting that the affair is "messed up," Tim tells his fiancee (Stephanie Szostak) that he'll stay home. But then the universe drops Barry (Steve Carrell) into his lap.

Barry is an idiot. Blissfully sweet-hearted and clueless with no common sense or understanding of sarcasm, he's an IRS worker who spends his days creating "mousterpieces": photographs featuring dressed-up, dead mice. By the end of their initial conversation, when Barry showcases his rodent "The Last Supper," Tim knows Barry is his ticket to the promotion. One short miscommunication later and Barry is wreaking havoc with Tim's love life, ruining his business deals and threatening to topple Tim's life with each kind gesture."

Dinner for Schmucks" is a broad farce in an age where observational humor and frat house mentality rule the silver screen. I'll give credit to director Jay Roach ("Austin Powers," "Meet the Parents") for trying something fresh with this remake of the French comedy "The Dinner Game." Roach knows comedy and has a knack for making scenes work. A few set pieces - including one in which Barry fends off Tim's psycho ex-girlfriend and another at a posh business brunch - unfold with a solid sense of pacing, building on small gags until every small moment erupts into big laughs. Roach understands how to properly time and frame each of these moments and there are several big laughs throughout "Schmucks."

The lion's share comes from Carrell, who manages to play Barry broadly, but with a foot in reality. Carrell brings a likability to his role and there's a sweetness to Barry that makes his aloofness endearing. Barry may be an idiot, but he's a genuinely nice guy who wants to help out his new friend. He's stupid, but happy with himself in a world filled with smart, insecure and cutthroat men and women. He's loyal, but with the unfortunate side effect that all of his attempts to help cause chain reactions of chaos to erupt around Tim. Barry's a great creation and one of the highlights of Carrell's rapidly advancing career.

Rudd doesn't do much more than react to Barry's off-the-wall antics, but I wish that he'd been allowed to play the role a bit meaner. As written, Tim is basically a jerk, willing to sacrifice another person's dignity in support of his career, but Rudd plays him as a nice guy who can't help himself. I understand that we're supposed to like Tim, but I have to imagine that if Tim started the film a bit more dislikable, pompous and off-putting, there'd be a greater tension between him and Barry, leading to a stronger payoff. As it is, Rudd is playing the same put-upon nice guy he's played in everything from "Role Models" and "I Love You Man" and, as well as he does it, it's becoming a bit repetitive.

Roach helms some very funny sequences and Carrell is always a joy to watch - his revelation of why his wife left him is both sad and hysterical, and his elaborate art creations are bizarrely affecting. But the film tries juggling too many side plots and becomes bogged down when it should be fast-paced and lean. There are some chuckles in a subplot regarding Tim's belief that his girlfriend is cheating on him with an artist (Jermaine Clement), but it weighs the film down with a needless romance and causes the film to drag. With 30 minutes excised, "Dinner for Schmucks" might feel a bit faster, more frantic and be able to sustain the laughs throughout the entire runtime.

The dinner party that everything culminates to is funny and fittingly absurd, particularly with Zach Galifianakis ("The Hangover") as Barry's boss, who believes he can control minds. The various characters who attend the dinner are fun to watch and there are some big laughs that I wouldn't dream of ruining, but just when the film should close, it meanders to resolve its romantic subplot. The film's epilogue delivers some chuckles on the way out, though.

"Dinner for Schmucks" isn't a bad movie, but it lacks the momentum, focus and edge that would have pushed it into hilarity. It's pleasant, with Carrell delivering a great comedic performance, but Rudd plays a bit too soft and Roach loses the narrative thread a few times. You won't necessarily regret RSVPing for "Dinner," but you're not going to miss out on much if you send a negative response.

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30s, engaged and living in Motown. Wrestling with life, love, faith, art, film, culture and everything in between.