Dinner for Schmucks
Directed by Jay Roach
Screenplay by David Guion and Michael Handelman
Steve Carell as Barry
Paul Rudd as Tim
Zach Galifianakis as Therman
Jemaine Clement as Kieran
Stephanie Szostak as Julie
Lucy Punch as Darla
Bruce Greenwood as Lance Fender
David Walliams as Müeller
Ron Livingston as Caldwell
You May Laugh, but You’ll Hate Yourself in the Morning
Dinner for Schmucks doesn’t spend much time at dinner, but by God it has a lot of schmucks. Director Jay Roach once brought us the cruel and inexplicably popular exercise in sadism that was Meet the Parents, and now in this re-imagining of the 1998 French farce The Dinner Game (which I haven’t seen) he returns to this unpleasant little world of his in which good people are forced to suffer for hours on end and audiences are expected to find it funny. It’s almost tragic that the cast of Dinner for Schmucks is so magical, so talented that it’s impossible to entirely condemn this movie. But they’re operating with a concept and a script that clearly think very little of them, and possibly even less of the audience. You will laugh while watching Dinner for Schmucks, but you might feel really bad about it afterwards.
Paul Rudd stars as Tim, a guy whose job is just complicated enough that calling him a “stockbroker” is inaccurate. He’s in line for a big promotion, but in order to impress his evil boss (Bruce Greenwood) and his boss’s evil inner circle (Ron Livingston, “The Daily Show’s” Larry Wilmore), he’ll have to bring someone embarrassingly stupid to a dinner party so they can all make fun of him. It’s a contest, you see. Whoever brings the biggest idiot, or “schmuck” (not that I recall anyone ever actually using that word) will curry the boss’s favor. Tim’s initial reaction would be the same as anyone’s: “That’s messed up.” And indeed it is. But Tim’s bosses think it’s funny, and the filmmakers think you will too.
Obviously the message of the film is that making fun of others is cruel, unfair, even monstrous. That’s what they say at least, but in actuality the film spends almost two whole hours doing just that. Tim literally runs into the biggest schmuck imaginable in Barry (Steve Carell), an impossibly awkward and entirely friendless taxidermy enthusiast who is obsessed with making storybook dioramas using dead mice wearing clothes. Barry seems so perfect for this “Dinner Game” that the temptation proves too difficult to resist, but Tim’s decision to invite poor Barry causes Julie (Stephanie Szostak), the woman he loves, to walk out on him in disgust. Tim spends most of the film trying to get Julie back, and being sabotaged by Barry at every turn.
Barry has a big heart and a surprising talent for stuffing those dead mice, but the entire film revolves around him being a clown for the audience’s amusement. When he destroys Tim’s apartment, accidentally convinces Julie that Tim’s having an affair, or unintentionally gets Tim audited, it’s kind of funny based on Roach’s expert comedic timing and the skilled performances of a fantastic ensemble cast. But it’s extremely hypocritical for a film to say that it’s wrong to laugh at Barry’s antics when that’s just what they expect the audience to do. The tragedy is that the film is at its best when it isn’t focusing on Barry, but on other, less ridiculous schmucks like Tim, his entitled assistant Susana (Kristen Schaal) or scene-stealer Jemaine Clement (“Flight of the Conchords”) as a charismatic but clearly deranged artist. Stephanie Szostak is fine in her role but like almost all of Paul Rudd’s romantic leads she hardly ever gets to say or do anything of interest. She’s supposedly his ideal woman, and indeed she’s both intelligent and lovely, but she’s just a plot point: an object of affection to be lost when it’s convenient and regained at the end when Tim finally learns a valuable lesson. Aside from her good nature she never displays a personality worthy of such an interesting and funny protagonist.
But of course Steve Carell is the real star here: The Jerry Lewis to Rudd’s Dean Martin. And he’s funny. Very funny, in fact. And Carell also infuses Barry with a distinct sense of inner tragedy that somehow fleshes out the character and makes him less believable at the same time. While we’ve all known people who operate on a different wavelength, who were the object of derision by their actual actions as opposed to superficial nonsense like their appearance or the way they talk, we get to know Barry well enough that he becomes a genuinely tragic figure. Dinner for Schmucks seems to be going for laughs in the opening credits, where it focuses entirely on Barry’s elaborate mouse-laden dioramas, but they’re so incredibly well-made, sweet and innocent that instead he immediately earns our respect. And Roach never entirely reconciles this love of the character with his existence as a walking punchline. Every time he seems real and human he then swiftly turns into a tornado of comic mannerisms. Even at the end of the film, when Barry gets at least a small personal victory to his credit, he does so by being condescended to. He’s ultimately such a complete idiot about it that you may find yourself laughing at him anyway, even though he’s supposedly earning the self-respect that will prevent him from being an object of scorn from then on.
Oh, but you’ll laugh, and you’ll laugh a lot. But halfway through the film I expect you’ll start turning away from the screen at periodic intervals, disgusted at Roach and maybe with yourself for laughing at people who are clearly passionate, talented and fascinating individuals who deserve better treatment from their fellow characters, their filmmakers and yes, even the audience. Dinner for Schmucks is a misnomer. Was Movie By Schmucks taken?