Reviews

'Dinner for Schmucks': A Film for Schmucks?

With its message never defined, Dinner for Schmucks leaves you wondering whether the real idiots were in front of the camera, behind it, or laughing complacently at home.


Dinner For Schmucks

Director: Jay Roach
Cast: Paul Rudd, Steve Carell, Zach Galifianakis, Jemaine Clement, Stephanie Szostak, Lucy Punch, Bruce Greenwood, Ron Livingston
Length: 114 minutes
Studio: Paramount Pictures, DreamWorks SKG, Spyglass Entertainment, Parkes/MacDonald Productions, Everyman Pictures
Year: 2010
Distributor: Paramount
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sequences of crude and sexual content, some partial nudity and language
Release Date: 2011-01-04

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.

2

Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

3 Pairs of Boots Celebrate Wandering on "Everywhere I Go" (premiere)

3 Pairs of Boots are releasing Long Rider in January 2021. The record demonstrates the pair's unmistakable chemistry and honing of their Americana-driven sound, as evidenced by the single, "Everywhere I Go".

Books

'World War 3 Illustrated #51: The World We Are Fighting For'

World War 3 Illustrated #51 displays an eclectic range of artists united in their call to save democracy from rising fascism.

Music

Tiphanie Doucet's "You and I" Is an Exercise in Pastoral Poignancy (premiere)

French singer-songwriter Tiphanie Doucet gives a glimpse of her upcoming EP, Painted Blue, via the sublimely sentimental ode, "You and I".

Music

PM Picks Playlist 3: WEIRDO, Psychobuildings, Lili Pistorius

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of WEIRDO, Brooklyn chillwavers Psychobuildings, the clever alt-pop of Lili Pistorius, visceral post-punk from Sapphire Blues, Team Solo's ska-pop confection, and dubby beats from Ink Project.

By the Book

The Story of Life in 10 1/2 Species (excerpt)

If an alien visitor were to collect ten souvenir life forms to represent life on earth, which would they be? This excerpt of Marianne Taylor's The Story of Life in 10 and a Half Species explores in text and photos the tiny but powerful earthling, the virus.

Marianne Taylor
Film

Exploitation Shenanigans 'Test Tube Babies' and 'Guilty Parents' Contend with the Aftermath

As with so many of these movies about daughters who go astray, Test Tube Babies blames the uptight mothers who never told them about S-E-X. Meanwhile, Guilty Parents exploits poor impulse control and chorus girls showing their underwear.

Music

Deftones Pull a Late-Career Rabbit Out of a Hat with 'Ohms'

Twenty years removed from Deftones' debut album, the iconic alt-metal outfit gel more than ever and discover their poise on Ohms.

Music

Arcade Fire's Will Butler Personalizes History on 'Generations'

Arcade Fire's Will Butler creates bouncy, infectious rhythms and covers them with socially responsible, cerebral lyrics about American life past and present on Generations.

Music

Thelonious Monk's Recently Unearthed 'Palo Alto' Is a Stellar Posthumous Live Set

With a backstory as exhilarating as the music itself, a Thelonious Monk concert recorded at a California high school in 1968 is a rare treat for jazz fans.

Music

Jonnine's 'Blue Hills' Is an Intimate Collection of Half-Awake Pop Songs

What sets experimental pop's Jonnine apart on Blue Hills is her attention to detail, her poetic lyricism, and the indelibly personal touch her sound bears.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Renegade Connection's Gary Asquith Indulges in Creative Tension

From Renegade Soundwave to Renegade Connection, electronic legend Gary Asquith talks about how he continues to produce infectiously innovative music.

Music

A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.

Books

Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.

Music

PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.

Film

'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.

Music

Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.

Film

Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.