Dinner for Schmucks tell the story of Tim (Paul Rudd), a guy on the verge of having it all. The only thing standing between him and total career success is finding the perfect guest to bring to his boss' Dinner for Extraordinary people, an event where the winner of the evening brings the most eccentric charater as his guest. Enter Barry (Steve Carell), a guy with a passion for dressing up mice in tiny outfits to recreate great works of art.

An unsubtle remake about cruel corporate shenanigans.

In Dinner for Schmucks, Steve Carell plays Barry. In the conceit of the film he’s set-up as a kind of über-nerd. He works for the IRS. His hobby is taxidermy. His special interest is finding dead mice, and stuffing them. Barry then 'casts’ the mice in meticulously designed dioramas that celebrate great moments in science, the arts and history, complete with little costumes and tiny props for the mice, that I suppose, add to the authenticity. At the risk of inciting a pop-culture play-off between competing hobbyists, I reckon Barry may have the edge on trainspotters, and electric model car enthusiasts.

At least he’s got a sense of humour. I mean his version of Da Vinci’s The Last Supper (but, you know with mice) is a hoot. Actually, Barry is more than a nerd, he is an idiot. He is clueless. He finds cliché pieties like 'everything happens for a reason’, revelatory.

In an irony delivered with all the subtlety of a car crash, Barry becomes a kind of saviour for Paul Rudd’s Tim, a finance analyst desperate to climb up the corporate ladder. (But then, looking for subtlety in a picture like this is a dead-end.) Tim starts off using Barry as a way to conform to the dog-eat-dog corporate culture.

Every month, Tim’s boss Lance (the superb Bruce Greenwood) holds a dinner where his favoured employees must bring a 'schmuck’ as their special guest; the 'suit’ with the best 'loser’, wins. Thus for Tim, Barry could be his entree to a corner office, and a better medical plan. Of course, Barry is something of a 'wise fool’, and in the great tradition of American screwball comedy, Barry’s antics will in effect 'teach’ the heartless, soulless Tim a life lesson in ethics, and morality (and in this movie you can chuck in romance, too).

Dinner for Schmucks has been called a remake or re-working of Francis Veber's 1998 black comedy Le Déner de Con, or The Dinner Game. Actually, the titles make the connection with the French film deliberately vague. As directed by Jay Roach, Schmucks is very much an American character/star comedy in the cringe 'n’ gasp 'n’ laugh style of, say, The Cable Guy. But there’s something very awkward about the tone here; it might be that Carell and co. never really quite nail Barry. Part of why this movie has such halting rhythms and so many dead spots is that we’re not quite sure how we ought to feel about Barry. At times he's dangerous (without being funny) and at other times he’s funny, but his goofiness offers no threat. Veber’s movie was, in part, a deconstruction of class. In Schmucks, social status never quite comes into it; which makes the movie kind of pointless since Tim is such a careerist.

Rudd, a fine actor, never seems to want to get his hands dirty with the part. Tim, like so many thirty something male roles in so much recent American cinema, seems to be more of an awkward teenager than a confused adult. Roach and the writers have shifted the stakes of the action away from deep-core value questions about life choices, in terms of career, occupation and consumerism and instead pulp the material into a cupid story.

Julie (Stephanie Szostak), Tim’s girlfriend, doesn’t approve of the dinner game. For much of the movie, Tim tries to get her back (with Barry around to make things much worse). The best thing about this aspect of the plot is that it has the terrific Jemaine Clement from Flight of the Concords as Tim’s romantic rival; he plays a photographer/painter who specialises in 'visceral’ art who spouts a hilarious parody of pretentious twaddle and whose major talent seems to be that he is a real twat. Whenever Clement is on screen with Carell and Rudd Schmucks is rude and funny. The trouble is, the rest of the movie should be like that too.


1 hour 54 min
In Cinemas 30 September 2010,
Thu, 01/27/2011 - 11