With such a simple premise and a dream cast of comedians, one could imagine Dinner For Schmucks, a pseudo-remake of the 1998 French film Le Diner de Cons, as ripe feeding ground for fresh humor. Instead, veteran director of hit-or-miss franchise comedies (Meet the Parents, then Meet the Fockers; Austin Powers, then Austin Powers in Goldmember) Jay Roach stifles the broad comedy with murky ethical questions and even more perplexing non-answers.
We are first introduced to Tim (Paul Rudd) as he watches a coworker pack up his car post-firing. His fellow employees make a few snide remarks about why the poor schmuck lost his job before Tim stops them with a casual rebuke meant to show his humanity. Cut to Tim proclaiming in private his own desire for the ousted man’s office. Though not quite contradictory actions, Tim’s personal moral quandaries are laid out early on as fuzzy at best.
His decisions are made all the more difficult by Tim’s soulless bosses who basically offer him the promotion he’s been dreaming of if he’ll participate in their annual (and titular) Dinner for Schmucks. Protagonist 101 calls on Tim to resist at first, and he does. His smokin’ hot girlfriend (Stephanie Szostak) is appalled at the concept (as any right-minded person would be) and expects Tim to back out. He tries, half-heartedly, until he literally runs into the biggest schmuck of them all.
Played sweetly by Steve Carell despite being written as a borderline-evil cartoon cretin, Barry is supposed to be an irresistible invite for Tim. You see, Barry is a part-time taxidermist, full-time IRS agent, and all-time buffoon. His dioramas of mice in love are truly spectacular, but not something “normal” enough to be seen outright for their artistic attributes. They also might be overshadowed by Barry’s habit for creating complete chaos.
On the surface, everything looks OK so far. Tim has problems to overcome. Barry is the wild card pushing the story forward. Hilarity should ensue, right? Wrong. Though Barry is the ideal character to spawn awkward scenes of misconstrued dialogue and brilliant feats of physical comedy, neither develop to their full potential. Tim and Barry get themselves into a few unfortunate circumstances, but none are memorably outrageous. The problem is that Barry isn’t as sweet as Carell (and the audience) wants him to be. His morals aren’t questionable – they’re nonexistent. Writers David Guion and Michael Handelman try to depict their half-developed character as having the best intentions at all times, but a few too many actions stick out as mean-spirited instead of dumb and that sticks with you after the credits roll.
Don’t blame the leads for the downfall of Dinner For Schmucks. Rudd could walk through his part, and does for most of it, but he manages to sell a half-assed scene where Tim’s back gives out. You can almost see Carell’s hands spring free of their bindings during a few scenes where Barry becomes sympathetic. The rest of his screen time is either sullied by the writing or some truly strange turns by his supporting cast. Lucy Punch, a funny British comedian in anything else, is simply terrifying here. As Darla, Tim’s long-term stalker brought back into his life by Barry’s miscues, Punch is called on to deliver some extremely odd lines and perform even odder actions. None of it registers on the comedy scale, and the audience ends up dreading her return more than Tim himself.
Zach Galifianakis also pops up as Barry’s boss and nemisis, Therman, an IRS auditor who practices mind control on the side. He manages to squeeze in a few funny one-liners, but Barry and Therman’s one-upmanship of each other as top idiot only makes things more awkward. The laughs they create are the exact laughs had by the soulless bosses at the expense of all the so-called schmucks during the film’s climactic dinner scene. We’re meant to laugh at their stupidity, ignorance, or abnormal actions, yet we’re also supposed to harshly judge the hosts for doing the exact same thing. It’s no wonder the film never settles on a message.
Nothing is clarified in the DVD’s special features, a mundane mix of appropriately deleted scenes, wisely kept out outtakes, and an amusing collection of cast interviews. The Biggest Schmucks in the World, a 15-minute behind the scenes doc, provides interviews with every comedian involved with the movie. Each one spends their time commenting on how funny another comedian is or how lucky they are to be in a movie with so many funny people. Only one or two, namely Jemaine Clement, are actually funny on camera, though.
Clement also managed to save a few scenes in the actual film. As an uber-popular artiste specializing in animal-inspired self-portraits, Clement and Carell actually capitalize on their two scenes together. The two artists, one a critically-acclaimed megastar and the other an ultra-private nobody, bond via miscommunication, creating an amusing question of what separates arty geniuses from socially outcast imbeciles. Is it their chosen fields, or just the current wave of public perception? Could they be equals in another time and place? More of these contemplative takes on what makes a moron would have been welcome, but they also would have been deserving of a better movie.