Dinner for Schmucks
One coarse meal: ‘Dinner for Schmucks’ serves up crude comedy — and a breakout role for Paul Rudd
Observation No. 1: Previews kill comedy. “Dinner for Schmucks,’’ the new movie from Jay Roach (“Austin Powers,’’ “Meet the Parents’’) is far from a classic of precision farce, but it’s funnier than the trailers make it seem. The ads highlight the dopiest, crassest gags; they’re there, all right, but as part of a nonstop flow of silliness that doesn’t build so much as continually renew itself. A number of bits don’t work, some of the characters wear out their welcome, but the whole suckers you into an agreeable state of idiot bliss. I felt a little unclean afterward, but that’s my problem.
Observation No. 2: Steve Carell doesn’t need glasses and funny teeth. Carell plays the schmuck of “Schmucks,’’ a cheerily moronic walking disaster named Barry, who is befriended by Tim (Paul Rudd), a rising businessman seeking to get ahead with his boss (Bruce Greenwood). As in the 1998 French film “The Dinner Game,’’ on which the new movie’s based, the boss holds parties where each employee brings a twit; the best twit wins a prize without knowing he’s actually the evening’s biggest joke. The movie pretends to be appalled at the cruelty of this notion, but its heart isn’t in it; these days, mocking the afflicted and the affected is an established source of profits for Hollywood in general and Roach in particular.
Barry is Tim’s chosen twit, and within hours of their meeting he has reduced his new friend’s life to itty-bitty pieces of rubble. He mistakes Tim’s levelheaded art-curator girlfriend (Stephanie Szostak, astonishingly graceful under the circumstances) for his deranged ex-girlfriend (Lucy Punch), trashes Tim’s apartment, throws out Tim’s back — things like that. At times it feels like a Neil Simon play cast by Judd Apatow.
The movie’s full of raving lunatics, with best-in-show honors shared by Zach Galifianakis (the big baby of “The Hangover’’) as Barry’s monomaniacal rival in love and mind-control and Jemaine Clement as an avant-prat of an artist, a Russell Brand-style role that the “Flight of the Conchords’’ star makes giddily his own. The misfits who turn up at the climactic title dinner, on the other hand, are one-dimensional freaks and not funny in the least.
In this company, Carell gets his laughs but seems rather lost, and it’s not hard to figure out why: Barry’s a character part that saddles the star with a clownish makeover — spectacles, a blond bowl cut, and so on. Carell’s great strength as a comedian is the gap between his physical normality and the wonderfully stupid things that tumble out whenever Michael Scott of “The Office’’ or Brick Tamland of “Anchorman’’ opens his mouth. (By contrast, Carell’s great strength as an actor, in films like “Little Miss Sunshine’’ and even “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,’’ is his put-upon sanity.)
Barry’s just a nincompoop from the get-go, though, and while there are decent gags involving his hobbies (making dioramas with stuffed mice) and observations (misquoting John Lennon’s “Imagine’’: “You may say that I’m a dreamer, but I’m not’’), there’s no tension to the part and far too much sentimentality. Carell’s too smart a performer to have to roll over for our sympathies.
Observation No. 3: Paul Rudd is ready to go solo. The truth is, Rudd’s the funniest person in “Dinner for Schmucks.’’ Tim’s long, patient slow burn as he contemplates his life laid to waste becomes the punch line to each scene, and in the movie’s low-farce highlight — a business brunch featuring Tim, Barry, a fatuous Swiss executive (David Walliams), his hotsy-totsy wife (Lucy Davenport), the real girlfriend and the ex — we laugh less at Barry’s endless screw-ups than at Tim’s frantic efforts to roll with them. Enough of pairing Rudd with other, messier comic actors in movies like “Role Models’’ and “I Love You, Man.’’ In the happy, debased landscape of post-Apatow comedy culture, Rudd’s practically Cary Grant. He deserves a movie of his own.
(Speaking of debasement, by the way, here’s Consumer Advisory Observation No. 4: “Dinner for Schmucks’’ is PG-13 but take the younger kids at your own risk. Unless, like the woman sitting behind me at the screening, you really want to be asked to define a particular lady part — the one that rhymes with “Dolores’’ — by your 7-year-old daughter. That must have been some car ride home.)