Friday, August 6, 2010

"Dinner for Schmucks": serving up a buffet of lame puns for review slug lines

To paraphrase Zach Galifianakis in his recent interview with Steve Carell, Carell has proved himself to be above criticism. Despite several questionable comedies following his rise to stardom on The Daily Show and the American adaptation of The Office, Carell continues to enjoy the reputation of a down-to-earth star with a solid box-office draw. Likewise, Paul Rudd, who was for a while best known to my generation as the not-blood-relation love interest in Clueless, has carved a nice comedy niche for himself in the world of Adam McKay/Judd Apatow style comedies, some (the David Wain-directed Role Models) far better than others (last year's uneven I Love You, Man).

As I stated previously in my summer comedy preview, Dinner For Schmucks, based on the French film The Dinner Game, seemed as though it would be a hit-or-miss. I was right. Were it not for the charm of Carell and Rudd, the movie would have been a total dud.

Dinner for Schmucks, directed by helmer Jay Roach (Meet the Parents), follows Tim (Rudd), a financial advisor hoping to advance his career. The only catch is he has to bring an unsuspecting dolt to a “dinner for losers” hosted by his boss every month. A chance encounter with Barry (Carell), an IRS agent with a hobby that combines dioramas and taxidermy, seems to be the answer to Tim's promotional problem. Of course, Tim's almost-fiancĂ©e Julie (Stephanie Szostak) isn't on board, and seems to be the object of artist Kieran's affections (played by the scene-stealing Jemaine Clement of Flight of the Conchords). The film builds predictably to a predictable climax and a predictable resolution where everything works out in the end.

Dinner for Schmucks is an innocuous comedy – it's not hysterical, but consistently amusing, thanks in part to the amazingly deep cast. Aside from Zach Galifianakis in a supporting role, the screen is shared by the likes of Kristen Schaal (Mel in Flight of the Conchords), Nick Kroll (Chupacabra on some season 6 episodes of Reno 911!), Ron Livingston (Peter in Office Space), puppeteer with mass appeal Jeff Dunham, Octavia Spencer (the prostitute in Bad Santa that “didn't shit right for a week”), and Daily Show correspondent Larry Whilmore, just to name a few. Most of the weight, though, is carried by Carell and his ability to play the likable loser. Unlike Will Ferrell or Seth Rogen, who often play similar roles, Carell can perform in a way that makes the character completely sympathetic, which although unrealistic, is necessary for such an absurd comedy as this to stay afloat.

It's not a laugh riot, it's not groundbreaking, but, this being the highest praise I can offer to Dinner for Schmucks, it's not a disaster.

TOO MUCH: Emotional story arc. Granted, the side plots with Tim and Barry's respective women are far from the focus of the film, there's enough in there to make it feel forced. There was almost too much Zach Galifianakis, whom I fear audiences are going to quickly tire of.

COULD HAVE USED MORE: Embracing the absurdity of the dinner antics – I daresay a few comedic punches were pulled back. When a movie is cast with the likes of Carell, Rudd, Clement, Galifianakis, Schaal, and Kroll, more improv is always welcome. I'd be surprised if the DVD release weren't chock full of alternate takes and extended scenes.

FILM SNOB NOTE: In the original French film, it was more of a dark social satire than screwball comedy, and the dinner in question didn't even occur. The word "schmuck" or phrase "dinner for schmucks" doesn't appear anywhere in the actual film, thankfully.

IHYFM RATING: THREE out of FIVE MEHS. It's an inoffensive and ultimately forgettable comedy that still manages to deliver a consistent stream of chuckles. If you wanted to see it after watching the trailer, you'll probably enjoy it. If you've grown accustomed to the raunchier and riskier R-rated comedies that have been in vogue as of late, you may be a little disappointed.

IF YOU SAID THIS WAS YOUR FAVORITE MOVIE, I'D THINK: You have the taste of a shmendrik.

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