Movie Review: Dinner for Schmucks
By Matthew Huntley
August 6, 2010
Dinner for Schmucks will likely be viewed as another one of those comedies where Steve Carell turns in a goofball performance. That would be a fair statement, but not a wholly accurate one. Carell has made a name for himself playing socially inept characters, including his roles in The 40 Year-Old Virgin, Get Smart and most recently Despicable Me, in which he provided his voice to the insecure villain named Gru. But Carell’s performance in Schmucks shouldn’t just be written off as goofball. Sure, he plays a goofball, but he really acts here, and his skills make the movie worth seeing.
The premise for Schmucks is not unlike most buddy comedies. Paul Rudd plays Tim, an ambitious financial analyst who thinks he’s just landed a multi-million dollar client for his Los Angeles firm. Tim’s boss (Bruce Greenwood) tells him he can manage the new account and “move up to the sixth floor” if he passes one little test: find an idiot and bring him to dinner so the boss and other corporate snobs can sit back and make fun of him.
That’s where Barry (Carell) comes in. Tim accidentally hits him with his Porsche but Barry sees the incident as his fault. He eagerly introduces himself and shows Tim his “Mouse-terpiece” collection. You see, Barry works as a taxidermist and in his spare time he puts together dioramas featuring stuffed mice. In fact, the movie opens with a demonstration of how this is done and it’s quite interesting to watch.
Initially, we think Carell might play Barry as the typical movie geek. You know the type - the character who never goes away, always says the wrong thing at the wrong time and perpetually gets the straight guy into more trouble. All those things happen here, but Carell goes further with his performance. He embodies Barry more fully than usual and goes beyond the Carell we usually see; he gives Barry an authenticity the movie doesn’t necessarily require but certainly benefits from. How could I tell? Because I myself was getting annoyed with Barry, and not on an amusing level, but on a real, deeply felt one. With his constant lingering about, inability to keep his mouth shut and weird, erratic behavior, Barry is a guy you really want to smack.
The extra acting on Carell’s part makes Dinner for Schmucks,” an otherwise routine but harmless comedy, more interesting than it might have been. Because Barry is so vexing, part of us looks forward to him being ridiculed and humiliated at dinner. The guy never seems to take a hint or go away, even when he’s blatantly told to do so. Maybe he needs to be ridiculed and humiliated to learn a lesson. But, and here’s where the interesting part comes in, despite his annoying nature, Barry is also sweet and warmhearted, and we must recognize that what Tim and his boss are doing is mean, even to Barry. As frustrating as the Barrys of the world can be, and there are many of them, they are still human beings. This aspect of the movie challenges us and gives us something to think about on a moral level. No matter how much certain people drive us crazy with their quirks and idiosyncrasies, making fun of them makes us the idiot.
Where the movie drags is with all the idiot plot stuff - the misunderstandings that could be solved with a simple sentence; Tim’s girlfriend, Julie (Stephanie Szostak), thinking Tim is having an affair when all she has to do is let him explain himself; the mixing up of cell phones that results in near catastrophe with the potential client (David Walliams), etc. This is all tired, sitcom-level material that stretches the movie too long. With another round through the editing room, the movie could have been tighter and zippier.
Speaking of tighter, there’s one character the screenplay could have dropped altogether. His name is Kieran (Jermaine Clement), a narcissistic artist who animalizes himself in self-portraits. His dialogue and accent are lame and I have a sneaking suspicion the filmmakers were searching for another Aldous Snow (Russell Brand), who stole a lot of the scenes in Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Barry convinces Tim that Kieran and Julie are having an affair, which leads to pointless and unfunny predicaments where Barry and Tim break into Kieran’s apartment and seek out a deranged IRS agent named Therman (Zach Galifianakis) to find Kieran’s hideaway ranch. Therman is just as annoying as Barry and believes he can control people’s minds, which leads to an amusing final showdown between the geeks. I wish the movie had found a different way to introduce Therman and bypassed Kieran because he ultimately proves to be unnecessary.
The movie does regain some energy during the climactic dinner scene and, as expected, introduces us to a slew of colorful weirdoes, including a blind fencer; a woman who communicates with dead animals; and a ventriloquist married to his female puppet. I would have liked to learn more about these people instead of merely seeing them perform their tricks, but the movie doesn’t give them that opportunity.
Dinner for Schmucks was directed by Jay Roach and inspired by the French film Le Diner de Cons, which was unseen by me, but I’m willing to bet it had more edge than the American version. Roach’s film throws in too much outrageous slapstick and silly misunderstandings to be credibly funny. But Carell makes it worthy of our time, and he and Rudd have good chemistry together. As it is, the movie is good and fun, but had the plot been simplified and the movie focused more on its people and less on its overwrought situations, it would have really taken off.