July 27, 2010

Dinner for Schmucks

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A movie review by James Berardinelli



Dinner for Schmucks

COMEDY:

United States, 2010

U.S. Release Date:

2010-07-30

Running Length:

1:55

MPAA Classification:

PG-13 (Profanity, Sexual Content)

Theatrical Aspect Ratio:

1.85:1

Cast:

Steve Carell, Paul Rudd, Stephanie Szostak, Jermaine Clement, Zach Galifianakis, Lucy Punch, Bruce Greenwood, David Walliams, Ron Livingston

Director:

Jay Roach

Screenplay:

David Guion & Michael Handelman, based on The Dinner Game by Francis Veber

Cinematography:

Jim Denault

Music:

Theodore Shapiro

U.S. Distributor:

Paramount Pictures

Subtitles:

none


There's something a little "off" with Dinner for Schmucks. The premise, borrowed from Francis Veber's 1999 French farce, The Dinner Game, hasn't improved significantly as a result of its translation into English. The film is sporadically amusing but gives the impression it should be generating more laughs than it does. In the end, it goes for the "warm, fuzzy" feeling that so many comedies make their goal, thereby undermining any potential Dinner for Schmucks might have as a dark and cynical endeavor.

Director Jay Roach is the man behind two highly successful comedy franchises: working with Mike Myers, he created and helmed the Austin Powers saga, and his collaboration with Ben Stiller resulted in the birth of the Fockers. Certainly, Roach has sufficient credibility in Hollywood to pick and choose his projects, so one wonders why The Dinner Game remake struck his fancy. Perhaps he believed he could do better with an English-language translation, especially with the likes of Steve Carell and Paul Rudd on board. However, as is typically the case with even mediocre foreign comedies, Hollywood remakes rarely improve on the original. At least in this case, it isn't worse.

As the story opens, upwardly mobile executive Tim Wagner (Paul Rudd), is angling for a major promotion. His boss, Fender (Bruce Greenwood), likes his aggressiveness - not to mention the potential financial windfall that could accrue from one of his suggestions - but Fender wants to see how ruthless and creative Tim can be, and this results in a dinner invitation. It's not just any dinner party, however. Each guest must bring an "idiot" with him, and the biggest idiot earns a trophy. For Tim, the stakes are higher - if his guest wins, he gets the promotion. His girlfriend, Julie (Stephanie Szostak), finds the concept morally reprehensible and temporarily talks Tim out of participating - until he encounters the perfect idiot. IRS employee Barry (Steve Carell) enters his life when Tim accidentally hits him with his car. Barry's hobby is taxidermy - he makes Hummel-like scenes using dead mice as the central characters - but he has an even more impressive talent. After knowing Tim for only a few hours, he has nearly ruined the man's life.

It's not that Dinner for Schmucks isn't funny, but that the humor is less consistent than one might hope. It represents an adequate night out for those in search of a few good laughs, but it fails to enter the upper echelon of top-flight comedies despite the involvement of several talented performers. Steve Carell does something interesting with Barry. The character starts life as repugnance personified, but Carell spends the bulk of the movie redeeming him; when the inevitable "feel good" scenes arrive late in the proceedings, the audience is on his side. Paul Rudd's task is thankless - he's the straight man, the guy to whom all the bad things happen. The Hangover's Zach Galifianakis fills a supporting role as Barry's off-the wall co-worker and Brit Lucy Punch has what may be the film's most memorable part as the S&M-loving stalker who targets Tim. The scenes featuring Punch, while sit-com-ish in nature, offer a sampling of outrageous humor (at least insofar as anything in a PG-13 rated motion picture can be considered "outrageous").

Although it initially seems that Dinner for Schmucks might be headed for a dark comedy zone - some of its early material is off-putting - it eventually settles for middle-of-the-road screwball territory. It's less interested in alienating viewers with excessive cruelty than it is in taking the characters along a familiar odd couple/buddy movie journey. So, despite a seemingly fresh beginning, it doesn't take long before Dinner for Schmucks starts to feel like 75% of the comedies out there that feature mismatched males as the leads. It would be easier to overlook the film's rather uninspired trajectory (not to mention its too-long 115 minute length) if it was funnier, but the material, perhaps constrained by the need to keep it teen-friendly, never gets raunchy enough or barbed enough to take flight. Like a lot of what the summer of 2010 has had to offer, this movie comes close to justifying a matinee price for those who aren't too demanding about what they see, but it's hard to see it being worth paying much more.

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