It’s remarkable how quickly the new comedy Dinner for Schmucks disappears from your brain. I can recall laughing my way through the vast majority of the film–mostly soft laughs, but there were more than a few big, hearty laughs from deep down in the diaphragm. (One might more economically call such a laugh a “guffaw,” but guffaw is such a silly word I refuse to acknowledge I might ever participate in one.)
Despite the inarguable fact that I was entertained throughout the entirety of Dinner for Schmucks — a film that never actually uses the word “schmuck,” but we’ll get to that — I can’t deny feeling rather empty while considering it a little more than a day later. I think this must be why many reviewers are giving the flick fairly lukewarm marks, though they had to be laughing their respective asses off on occasion just as I was.
There are lots of reasons not to respect the movie. There’s the fact that it’s reportedly a fairly pale “reimagination” of a French film, Francis Veber’s Le dîner de cons (The Dinner Game). (I haven’t seen the original, so I can’t compare.) The screenplay is inarguably mediocre. Some of the characters, especially those at the eventual dinner, are lazily imagined. And it’s disappointing to see Paul Rudd, who’s capable of much more interesting, brilliantly caustic characters (in Wet Hot American Summer and Anchorman, for starters) relegated to playing yet another purely-reactive straight man.
And yet… Dinner for Schmucks is funny. Very funny. Occasionally laugh-out-loud funny. It’s like a frozen Snickers bite-size bar when you’re having a chocolate craving: Incredibly satisfying for about five minutes… after which, you’ll forget all about it.
Yet I can’t help wanting to recommend Schmucks, and dammit, that’s exactly what I’m going to do. Because for the ninety minutes you’re in the theater, it is a lot of fun. It’s a much better date night film than, say, the relentlessly mediocre Date Night.
Those two films don’t just share a star in Steve Carell. They also share a philosophy: Take a half-interesting situation, flesh it out a bit with half-written characters and a half-written screenplay, and let the stars make it sing. Date Night was only moderately tolerable because it had Carell and the always-entertaining Tina Fey as its leads. With Carell and Rudd joined by a far more interesting supporting cast (and a much sharper director), Schmucks is like Date Night done right.
Carell and Rudd are consummate comedic pros with perfect chemistry together. You can’t help but figure working together in Anchorman and The 40-Year-Old Virgin played a role there. With the expert guidance of director Jay Roach (helmer of the Austin Powers and Meet the Parents/Fockers series), they mine every possible laugh out of every line, every expression, every reaction shot.
That’s especially impressive because neither actor is working with a particularly well-crafted role here. Barry (Carell) is an amalgam of all sorts of odd eccentricities and levels of confusion, though his meticulous talent at turning dead mice into works of art suggests he’s some sort of idiot savant. As many a commercial has already informed you, he gets invited to a very different sort of social dinner by Tim, a finance executive desperate to impress his bosses.
Tim is virtually indistinguishable from the other “straight men” Rudd has played in recent comedies. Only the goofball buddy and the gorgeous girlfriend change. In Role Models, Rudd suffers through Seann William Scott’s crazy schemes, which threaten his relationship with Elizabeth Banks. In I Love You, Man, Rudd’s new “bromance” with Jason Segal threatens his engagement to Rashida Jones. And in Schmucks, Rudd’s dinner plans with Carell threaten to derail his planned engagement to fresh face Stephanie Szostak.
Schmucks ramps up the funny thanks to Roach’s direction and some extremely well-chosen supporting players. It’s very strange that Zach Galifianakis’ name doesn’t even appear on the Schmucks poster, especially given how hot he is following The Hangover and how heavily he’s featured in the commercials. Though he appears in what amounts to only two scenes, the actor hijacks the film wholesale, and not in the wild, over-the-top sort of cameo you might expect from, say, a Will Ferrell or Ben Stiller.
Following suit, albeit with much more screen time, is Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement, who does do the over-the-top thing as avant garde artist Kieran, and it’s perfectly brilliant. (One can easily foresee a Get Him to the Greek-type spinoff for the character.) Every time Schmucks threatens to stall, it wisely finds a way to weave Kieran back into the proceedings.
The longest period in which we don’t see Kieran is also Schmucks’ weakest stretch, the actual dinner itself. The French original apparently never included the actual dinner, and maybe that was a good move. The boss who puts on the dinner actually considers it a “dinner for idiots” — the word “schmucks” is never used, and one figures that term came from some studio exec worried about the word “idiot.”
Barry’s fellow idiots at the dinner aren’t particularly funny, and this is where the film goes for some fairly broad laughs that are only fitfully amusing. In fact, the best part of the dinner is when Barry gets to show off some of his “mousterpieces,” a segment that’s more than a little touching.
Despite such faults, Schmucks plays it smart most of the time. It’s sad that Office Space‘s Ron Livingston doesn’t have much to do as Tim’s nemesis, but two Daily Show personalities, Larry Wilmore and Kristen Schaal (also of Conchords), are pitch-perfect in small roles.
On the whole, Schmucks isn’t one of the decade’s great comedies. But if you’re satisfied with laughing for 90 minutes, and enjoying talented actors rise (well) above their material, it’s definitely worth your time.