With runners-up like “Kick-Ass” (2010) and “Knocked Up” (2007), it’s no small accomplishment that “Dinner for Schmucks” handily wins Best Film Title honors for movies produced in the last few years. Otherwise, while the unlikely paean to friendship has many funny moments, it’s hardly the scandalous laugh riot its moniker might imply.
But it is strange brew. And filmgoers tired of the same old formula fare should note that director Jay Roach’s variation on French filmmaker Francis Veber’s “Le Dinner de Cons” fancifully veers off into uncommonly weird territory, thanks mostly to a staggeringly abstract performance by Steve Carell. He’s the schmuck invited to dinner.
It’s all part of a bad joke, a nasty example of how we’re revisiting the recklessness F. Scott Fitzgerald illustrated during the Roaring Twenties, except without the class. So of course it’s about money and power. Specifically, the promotion Tim is vying for at the nefarious but nevertheless legitimate firm that feeds on businesses in trouble.
Portrayed by Paul Rudd, Tim explains to his art-curating, idealistic girlfriend, Julie (Stephanie Szostak), that there are two Tims: the nice, caring, socially responsible one, and the shark who earns the dough that pays for their stunning pad and the Porsche. Okay, so it’s only a Boxster. But if he gets the new gig, it could be Carrera 4S time.
Good thing he has the skill and canniness to attract the eye of stereotypically cynical CEO, Lance Fender, played by Bruce Greenwood. Locating half a billion dollars in Swiss assets just dying to be mismanaged, Tim offers up the potential client. Naturally, the big boys are determined to cut the guy out of his find. Yet they string him along, just in case.
So he’s invited to the big dinner, a ritualistic trial of insensitivity wherein whoever brings the biggest loser (read schmuck) proves his worthiness to gorge with the higher-priced jackals. Luckily, he literally runs into his potential guest entry just shortly after the invite. Enters stage left to share the protagonist honors, Steve Carell’s Barry.
All bets are off here. He is the proverbial piece of work, and as such defies conventional description. In time we accept that Carell’s fool is an experiment in improvisational characterization. Only the occasional inconsistency has me hesitant to compare his energetic depiction with Peter Sellers’s Chauncey Gardiner in “Being There” (1979).
While also not as funny as Mr. Sellers’s Oscar-nominated piece de resistance, the zany shtick is still awesomely compelling. Carell sprees scat style, where humor and craziness intersect, way up in the recesses of that frightening, comedic equivalent of speaking in tongues. Even if not laughing, you’re gaping in amazement at the comic contortions.
Too bad the plot isn’t as novel as the acting. Once the cruel premise is established, David Guion and Michael Handelman’s screenplay rarely amounts to anything more inspired than sitcom sensibilities. It’s the usual muddle of mix-up and misunderstanding, albeit lunatically prompted by Mr. Carell’s enigmatic idiot. There is no end to his instigation.
The primary confusion kicks off shortly after Barry inveigles his way into Tim’s apartment and begins to wreak his wacky form of havoc. Among the bits of hazardous fallout, it isn’t long before Julie thinks Tim is two-timing her, and Darla, a loose cannon of a one-night stand devilishly played by Lucy Punch, is spitefully adding to the disorder.
No surprise, the domestic devastation soon works its disarraying way into the Big Business Deal. Not that it matters much to Swiss bigwig Müeller, played by David Walliams. He and his wife Birgit (Lucy Davenport), living definitions of dilettantism, are almost as nutty as Barry. The difference is, Barry has redeeming value, sort of, maybe.
It depends on whether you believe all’s well that ends well. There will be moral lessons and epiphanies unearthed via the mental pillage and plunder visited by Barry’s busybody desire to be of use and, ultimately, to be loved. He’s the poor soul, the guy voted least likely to be your pal. Unfortunately, he has to ruin everything before proving his value.
The recent archetype of said characterization is the late great John Candy’s Del Griffith in “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” (1987). Carell’s bizarre take, while not nearly as poignant and heartwarming, nonetheless hits several empathetic notes. Yet again, it is more curious than touching. Truth be told, the unsung hero in this scenario is Paul Rudd.
Try playing opposite the indefinable, as Tom Cruise did so expertly in “Rain Man” (1988). While Rudd’s solid stint scarcely approaches that sublimity, he does buoy matters a healthy portion above mediocrity. Pity is, while some good side dishes and a unique main course whet the appetite, “Dinner for Schmucks” leaves us hungry for more laughs.
“Dinner for Schmucks,” rated PG-13, is a Paramount Pictures release directed by Jay Roach and stars Steve Carell, Paul Rudd and Stephanie Szostak. Running time: 114 minutes
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