Peter Eramo Reviews: “Dinner for Schmucks” (***)
August 2, 2010 7 Comments
As a general rule, I am usually very wary of seeing movie remakes, especially ones adapted from very enjoyable/strong foreign films that Americans tend to treat with less than respectable hands. So my expectations were not so very high going in to see Jay Roach’s comedy Dinner for Schmucks – a film inspired from Francis Veber’s wonderfully warm and witty 1998 French film, Le diner de con (The Dinner Game). Deep down, I must admit that I didn’t very much want to like the movie – mainly because I am such a fan of the original and consider myself somewhat of a purist. However, I let the movie do all the work and much to my surprise, Dinner for Schmucks holds its own in many aspects and succeeds at being one of the stronger comedies released this year, providing many laughs throughout.
Tim (Paul Rudd) is a rising executive who wants to move up in the world – he wants a cushy office on the 6th floor where the big boys play and a bigger salary to better provide for his artistic and sophisticated girlfriend, Julie (Stephanie Szostak). Tim feels her rejections to his marriage proposals (two in two days) stem from his lack of success in the business world. When Tim impresses his shallow and ego-maniacal boss (a very effective Bruce Greenwood) at a meeting, he is invited to astound him further at an upcoming dinner party which he hosts each month. The dinner however, has a sinister twist to it, as it is rather, a competition among the invited guests to see who can bring the biggest idiot with him to entertain and amuse the snobbish and well-to-do elite. If Tim can bring an A-1 moron, that promotion is as good as his.
Tim struggles with his conscience and after seeing Julie’s utter displeasure in this tasteless sport, he resolves not to go through with the dinner. Until, that is…he meets Barry (Steve Carell), the perfect idiot sent from Heaven above. Tim sees this as a strong prophetic sign and decides to invite Barry to the dinner. Of course, Barry makes the mistake of showing up at Tim’s one night early — just enough time for numbskull Barry to ruin just about everything in Tim’s life, including his relationship with Julie.
There is a lot that works here, and most of that stems from the chemistry between Rudd and Carell, who have worked with each other before. Rudd plays the straight, sarcastic guy here, while Carell gets the bulk of the laughs with his ridiculous stupidity and, for the most part, it works. Barry is just a pathetic character — he’s lost his wife (who he loves unconditionally) to a rival co-worker (Zach Galifianakis) at the IRS, he has absolutely no friends, and he spends most of his time working on his mouse caricatures — something he is quite skilled at and has an enormous passion for. We should have tremendous empathy for Barry, especially as he is being used here for the sadistic amusement of others — and we do…a little bit at least. A lot of the comedy here is a bit over-the-top, especially in the film’s supporting characters, and that is what keeps us from having absolute compassion for this guy. It plays out a bit unreal, which hurts the film. Jacques Villeret played the idiot in the original film and was absolutely perfect — his facial features and gestures alone moved you near to tears. That is what this American remake is missing.
Jemaine Clement and Judy Punch are very strong in their supporting roles. Clement plays Kieran, the narcissistic artist with the animal magnetism who Tim is very jealous of. Clement does a very nice job at giving the character some heart and conscience beneath all of the bravado – and his connection with Barry is a humorous one. Punch plays the imbalanced and delusional Darla, a one-night stand from years ago who is obsessed with Tim and comes back to wreak more havoc in his life, all thanks to Barry’s snooping. Punch comes off like a deranged, psychotic Courtney Love (is there any other kind?), and is perhaps more upsetting than funny. Kristen Schaal deserves mention here, playing Tim’s assistant Susana. Schaal only has a handful of short scenes here, but is delightfully funny and makes the most out of what may have been a thankless role in another actor’s hands. Galifianakis plays Barry’s nemesis, Therman, and I have to ask — is anyone tired of this guy yet? It seems to me, this guy just plays the same thing over and over and for me, the moment has surely gone. Therman claims to be a mind-reader and uses this fraudulent talent to possess complete control over poor Barry. An envious rival of Tim’s (Jon Livingston) invites Therman as his own idiot and the two jackasses go mano-y-mano.
The telling scene in this film is when Barry is making his presentation at the actual dinner. Here, Barry is showing off his most impressive works (the evolution of man, the Wright Brothers, Vincent Van Gogh — all depicted by his crafted rodents), and as Tim’s colleagues are secretly laughing at and mocking Barry, we look at Tim and therein lies the key to the movie’s success or failure. Rudd makes this work with great subtlety as Carell forges ahead, completely oblivious. It’s after this key moment that the dinner gets completely out-of-hand and goes too far over the edge, trying to get as many laughs as it can from the variety of invited idiots as the house goes up in flames.
I must say that I laughed out loud quite a bit — and the audience around me seemed to take great delight in it as well. And beneath the slapstick humor and absurd supporting cast of characters, Roach manages to give the film some heart, which is imperative in order for the movie to work at all. It may not be as warm or sincere as its predecessor, but it does provide many laughs and amusing moments throughout. It’s also worth watching Rudd and Carell play off one another. Definitely worth seeing if you need a laugh.