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When reading the synopsis for 1998s French film Le dîner de cons, I was surprised at how close to the new Americanized version, Dinner for Schmucks, it actually was. Both titles allude to the fact a dinner is involved—one hinging on the invitation of guests with high levels of idiocy. After all, the one to make company owner Fender (Bruce Greenwood) laugh most is awarded a trophy for his/her trouble; a chalice designating the winner as “Most Extraordinary” to his face, but “Biggest Loser” behind his back. You’ve seen the trailers and heard Larry Wilmore speak the words, “Best dinner ever!” so you hope the title describes the setting for the majority of the film, a wild and crazy combination of kooks, suits, and the large chasm which divides them. But then you recall this is Hollywood and its director is Mr. Diminishing Returns himself, Jay Roach, dragging your mind back to reality and the harsh truth awaiting. Our main Schmuck Barry (Steve Carell) may be the lynchpin for some of the biggest laughs and deepest moments of heart, but it is his ever-present ability to drag endearing over the edge to obnoxious that leaves the most lasting memory.

Much like Carell’s role in “The Office”, Barry is the kind of simpleton creature who for some reason remains likeable despite his abject cluelessness. You pity him more than you hate him—although the character here is nowhere near as offensive and completely loathsome as Michael Scott—and hope for the best as a result. To be absolutely candid, with the stunning craftsmanship of the ‘Mousterpieces’, whose creation serve as backdrop to the opening credits, and the possession of not one mean bone in his body, Barry is the kind of guy I could get behind. While Carell is billed first, however, the film’s true lead is Paul Rudd’s Tim, a ‘not so close to a stockbroker at all’ looking to earn a promotion by banking his firm a boatload of cash. He is living the life: great job, nice car, beautiful almost-fiancé, (Stephanie Szostak is drop dead gorgeous as Julie), and a quick wit combined with a cultural knowledge in the arts. Unfortunately, staying on the cabbage-smelling sixth floor won’t sustain such a lifestyle for much longer; he needs to be strong and show Fender what he’s made of. To do so, though, means he must go against the wishes of Julie and find some poor soul to ridicule and join the ‘boy’s club’ he so covets.

Everything happens for a reason—a sentiment overused throughout—and Tim literally runs into Barry serendipitously two days before the event. Almost having the moral fortitude to walk away and risk everything by refusing his seat, the diorama taxidermist/IRS employee’s eccentricities were too much to disregard. If only Tim knew the sort of destruction this strange man’s tenacity could create, the childlike innocence of pure aloofness becoming an avalanche of misfortune and tragedy. Barry pushes Julie to leave, allows Tim’s stalker access to his home, causes his new friend to be complicit in a breaking and entering, and watches the man’s life fall apart, unaware his meddling was the cause. The story becomes that age-old tale of seeing past the surface of an idiot and into the pain beneath the eagerness to please. We soon learn about Barry’s past and the not so mirrored comparison with Tim’s unraveling existence, learning how one must fight for whatever it is he wants. It’s about being the goat willing to do anything necessary for happiness, even if it means eating himself.

Tim’s entire reasoning for going after the promotion is to prove he’s worthy of Julie. He wants to be successful and powerful, unaware of how complete his life already is, her being by his side all he needs. So, the plot turns into an unoriginal journey toward this epiphany, teaching lessons about talking behind someone’s back and cherishing what we love. Sappy sentimentality seeps in and drags the middle third to a screeching halt of monotonous tedium, showing Carell’s Barry making one misstep after another. But these pitfalls are necessary for Rudd’s Tim to hit rock bottom and realize the error of his way. The question, though, is whether we want him to. Tim is a self-centered jerk, quickly proving the ‘man Julie doesn’t know’—capable of doing the things even he abhors to achieve his goals—is his true self. You can’t help but begin to despise the character you should be getting behind, unable to even cheer on Barry because of his ineptitude and the fact his accidental triumphs only bring Tim closer to victory. Dinner for Schmucks therefore ends up less the wanting to see how it turns out than the twisted desire to see how far these imbecilic characters will go.

The dinner itself is by far the biggest laugh of the bunch with Octavia Spencer’s pet psychic, Chris O’Dowd’s blind swordsman, and Patrick Fischler’s vulture keeper. Other memorable supporting cast members include David Walliams’s Swiss billionaire Müeller, Lucy Punch’s bruiser of a stalker Darla, and Jemaine Clement’s rugged art photographer—the work of which is a less effeminate Matthew Barney-type with Francis Bacon’s grotesquery thrown in to fill the void. Zach Galifianakis is humorous too, but for the most part too deadpan, causing the one-note joke to falter, carrying on way longer than is good for it. There are a ton of one-liners, though, and the chemistry between Carell and Rudd is for the most part effective when not cringingly repetitious, so despite my lackluster reaction to the film, most who want to see it should end up enjoying the derivative format and jokes. In all honesty, I should applaud any work this uninspired for making me at least laugh consistently, if not uproariously at any point. Perhaps those reactions lean more towards the source material than what’s been put to script here. I do, in any event, want to now seek the original and see for myself what Hollywood saw to give it the bland remake treatment its known for.

Dinner for Schmucks 5/10

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photography:
[1] Steve Carell and Paul Rudd in Paramount Pictures’ Dinner for Schmucks.
[2] Steve Carell and Jemaine Clement in Paramount Pictures’ Dinner for Schmucks.

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