Dinner for Schmucks

A comedy for idiots, about idiots.

Also in Slate, read Elbert Ventura’s appreciation of Paul Rudd.

Amid all the septic-tank gags, Meet the Parents had one standout scene—at De Niro’s dinner table, where a nervous Ben Stiller delivers an excruciating soliloquy about cat-milking. It’s one of the age-old tenets of farce—goofy stuff, said at the dinner table, sounds twice as goofy—but director Jay Roach was obviously so enamored of his discovery that he has sought to turn it into an entire movie. In Dinner for Schmucks (Paramount), a group of L.A. financiers meet regularly for dinner, each bringing along an idiot for everyone’s amusement. The one with the best idiot wins.

The idea is lifted from the 1998 French film, Le Diner des Cons, directed by Francis Veber, in which a snobbish publisher befriended a fool for the purposes of civilized mockery, only to see the fool visit chaos upon every corner of his life. It wasn’t Feydeau, but it delivered a neat kick to the shins of Parisian literary snobs—boo hiss. I’m not sure what you get from shifting the whole thing to the world of Los Angeles private equity, not a field that is world famous for its air of intellectual brinkmanship; or from giving the lead role to Paul Rudd, who happens to be one of the most affable, easy-going invertebrates on the planet.

“That’s messed up,” he protests when he first hears about the scheme—and just in case we miss his principles the first time, here they are again: “That’s messed up” says his girlfriend Julie, who is played by French-born actress Stephanie Szostack, presumably on the principle that if you are to ransack a country’s most venerable farceur traditions you may as well grab their most winsome, button-nosed actresses while you’re at it.

Once a new job is waved in front of him as bait, Rudd succumbs, thus turning the film from a story of comic deliverance visited on a snob who richly deserves it into a story of comic deliverance visited upon someone who isn’t a snob but pretends to be one, although really—truthfully?—he should know better. Now, I’m not the biggest fan of Hollywood’s insistence that everyone on-screen be the proud recipient of a gleaming character arc, leading them from the error of their ways into a well-lit, carefully irrigated world of moral beneficence, but even I could tell you that if you start introducing characters who should know better into the equation, all the fun goes out of the thing. Driving down the street one day, Tim run his Porsche into a sad sack in a windbreaker called Barry Speck (Steve Carell) who dusts himself off—Carell actually brushes his palms, as if getting up from push-ups—and takes the occasion to show off his collection of stuffed mice dioramas. Tim has his idiot.

Or does he? Steve Carell’s movie career has been so fitful of late that his fans have been forced into retrospection, revisiting the delights of The 40-Year-Old Virginas the film that both minted and perfected the Carell persona—a fortysomething late-starter with a streak of old-fashioned gallantry behind his collection of comic-book figurines. Carell, alone among the current crop of comedians, doesn’t play stupid—he’s way too quick, a venal schemer in The Office, whose fine features twitch with intelligence—so I would be fascinated to learn what thinking lay behind casting him as a stone-cold dumbkopf. Carell dons some rabbity false teeth and a pudding-bowl wig, the same worn by Jim Carrey in Dumb and Dumber, but Carell has not, thus far, modeled his career on the plasticine antics of Carrey, so why start now? “He’s a tornado of destruction,” says Rudd and you think: “No, he’s not.” Carell is and always will be the guy standing in the path of the tornado, his hand raised and a stapler attached to his tie.

Actually, Barry is less a character and more a series of labored comic set pieces crammed into human form. Let’s see. Barry turns up to the dinner a day early, taps into a line of e-communication with Rudd’s stalker-ex, and invites her round for a spot of spanking, just in time for Julie to witness the whole thing and walk out in a huff. Funny, no? OK, try this. Rudd has to impress a Swiss banker at lunch, so Barry turns up pretending to be his brother, and the stalker-ex pretending to be Julie, so that he can propose marriage to her just as the real Julie enters stage left and walks off in an even bigger huff. Isn’t that just a hoot? What’s Rudd doing hanging out with the guy if he’s such trouble? Ah well, you see, he forgot his bus pass so he can’t get home. Why doesn’t he catch a taxi? He forgot his house keys, too …

You get the picture. Roach may be the least organic director of comedy currently working in Hollywood. Other directors strive for svelte invisibility, teeing up their setups so imperceptibly that all the actors have to do is roll up and take a clean spike at the ball. Roach is down in the sand pit, furiously digging his way out, passing off the sweaty contrivance of his set pieces as comic zaniness. It’s more like a form of comic epilepsy:; He whips up the performances to almost unendurable levels of frenzy and then discards them for someone new, like a bored child riffling through toys.

In addition to Carell, we get Zach Galifianakis as a mind-reading IRS officer, Jemaine Clement as a goatish artist-satyr; and that’s before we even get to the dinner itself, which features a blind fencer, a pet psychic, a guy who regurgitates food for his vulture … This tawdry freak show is a telling substitution for the actual stupidity mocked in Veber’s original. Roach’s remake manages both mean-spiritedness and timidity the same time. That’s some feat—moviemaking for boneheads.

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