Dinner for Schmucks
Director : Jay Roach
Screenplay : David Guion & Michael Handelman (inspired by the film Le dîner de cons by Francis Veber)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2010
Stars : Steve Carell (Barry), Paul Rudd (Tim), Zach Galifianakis (Therman), Jemaine Clement (Kieran), Stephanie Szostak (Julie), Lucy Punch (Darla), Bruce Greenwood (Lance Fender), David Walliams (Müeller), Ron Livingston (Caldwell), Larry Wilmore (Williams), Kristen Schaal (Susana), P.J. Byrne (Davenport), Andrea Savage (Robin), Nick Kroll (Josh), Randall Park (Henderson), Lucy Davenport (Birgit), Christopher O’Dowd (Marco the Blind Swordsman), Jeff Dunham (Lewis the Ventriloquist), Octavia Spencer (Madame Nora the Pet Psychic), Patrick Fischler (Vincenzo the Vulture Lover), Rick Overton (Chuck the Beard Champion)
Dinner for Schmucks, a comedy in which smug, wealthy men hold a monthly dinner party as a contest to see who can find the biggest dolt to invite, is now in its third incarnation, after having been a 1998 French film written and directed by the venerable Francis Veber, who based it on his own stage play. The remake rights were immediately snapped up by Hollywood back in the late 1990s, which isn’t a surprise since practically every comedy that Veber makes is eventually remade across the pond, usually not very well (to name a few: 1982’s The Toy, 1985’s The Man With One Red Shoe, 1989’s Three Fugitives, 1996’s The Birdcage, and 1997’s Father’s Day). The original intention was that it would become a star vehicle for Robin Williams, but now that more than a decade has passed, Williams has been replaced by Steve Carell, who has his own unique sense of how a comedy of errors can be played for maximum embarrassment.
Carell stars as Barry, a bespectacled dweeb of questionable intelligence whose passion is making intricate dioramas starring stuffed mice. Barry is clearly a kind-hearted guy, so much so that when he gets hit by a car his first notion is to be impressed that he was hit by a Porsche. However decent he is, though, he is also a “tornado of destruction,” to use one character’s phrase, a man who misinterprets every situation, misses every social cue, insists on helping when it isn’t needed, and says everything he should not. He barrels through life enmeshed in his own head, completely unaware of all the damage he causes … or so we are led to think.
Barry becomes the dinner guest of Tim (Paul Rudd), a rising star in an investment firm who makes an impression on the boss (Bruce Greenwood) and is therefore invited to take part in the titular dinner. In a major change from the French film, Tim is not a smug, self-absorbed prig, but rather a decent, but ambitious young man who makes the mistake of compromising his own sense of moral order to get ahead. Tim knows that the dinner is wrong, and at first he even tries to get out of it, until he hits Barry with his car and mistakes it for some kind of divine intervention. Barry’s girlfriend Julie (Stephanie Szostak), an art museum curator, is disgusted by the idea, but Barry feels that he has to participate in the dinner in order to rise in the firm and continue to afford the chic apartment, nice car, and other material amenities that he thinks she wants. Of course, once Tim invites Barry into his life, it starts crashing down around him, as Barry encourages a psychotic one-night-stand-turned-stalker (Lucy Punch) to come back into Tim’s life, convinces him that Julie is having an affair with a hilariously pretentious artist named Kieran (Jemaine Clement) whose show she is curating, and threatens to completely derail a possible business deal with a snooty Swiss millionaire (David Walliams).
As directed by Jay Roach (Meet the Parents), Dinner for Schmucks’ primary virtue is its sheer and relatively unpredictable ridiculousness--you never know from one minute to the next what Barry-created disaster will befall Tim next, which turns the film into a continual punishment machine even as we are slowly made to realize that Barry is a much sadder and more complicated figure than we initially thought (credit Carell for making the character so simultaneously likable, infuriating, pathetic, and brave). Screenwriters David Guion and Michael Handelman, who worked similar territory in the cringe comedy The Ex (2006), have a special gift for creating impossible situations with outlandish characters, and here they nearly overwhelm the film with their bizarre creations. In addition to the artist Kieran, who snarls and prances and works his “animal magnetism” into both his art and his personal life, and Marla, the unhinged stalker who turns Tim’s living room into a free-for-all, we also have Zach Galifianakis as Therman, a bearded weirdo who claims to be able to control people’s minds, especially Barry’s. By the time we arrive at the actual dinner (an event that was never actually shown in the original French film), the parade of oddballs feels almost normal, which is, of course, the point. It’s no surprise that Dinner for Schmucks has a rather obvious feel-good agenda of punishing mean rich people and celebrating the eccentrics who make life interesting, thus flipping the title and showing us who the real schmucks are.
Copyright ©2010 James Kendrick
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