Dinner for Schmucks

Talk about a food coma. Director Jay Roach's remake is way over the top.

By Sean Burns
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 1 | Posted Jul. 27, 2010

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(Dead) mice and mean: Steve Carell plays a loser taxidermist in Dinner for Schmucks

Photo by PW Staff

Have wacky hair and false teeth ever actually made anybody funnier, or are they just the insecure affectations of desperate performers trying way too hard?

With his defiant obliviousness and shabby nobility, Steve Carell certainly doesn’t need a doofy Ceasar-cut, 1980’s-movie nerd glasses and prosthetic buck teeth. But so it goes with Dinner for Schmucks, a dreadfully overwrought American remake on French writer-director Francis Veber’s The Dinner Game. If one needs a telling summation of the differences between the source material and its American remake, briefly consider that title change.

Paul Rudd stars as an up-and-coming financial analyst who, after impressing his haughty boss (Bruce Greenwood, oozing sleaze), is invited to a very special dinner party with the executive class. The catch is he’s required to bring an idiot that all these rich jerks will be able to mock during the meal. Initially repulsed, Rudd nonetheless sees a promotion in his future after accidentally hitting Steve Carell’s loudmouth grotesque with his car.

A lonely taxidermist who makes elaborate dioramas out of dead mice, Carell’s exaggerated loser is an aching plea for attention in a Members Only jacket. His character does not seem to come from, nor belong, anywhere near the planet Earth, and director Jay Roach seems to have encouraged the actor to push his sniveling affectations so far over the top that his ridiculous coiffure and buck teeth aren’t just gilding the lily—they’re bronzing it, too.

Roach is an erratic director on his best days, having helmed a couple of very special comedies (the original Austin Powers, Meet the Parents) as well as some of the most joyless, desultory spectacles of recent years (the Austin Powers sequels, Meet the Fockers.) The sight of expired mice in miniature costumes is already exhausted during the opening credits, but in Dinner for Schmucks there’s no dead horse (or dead mouse) that cannot be beaten all the way through the final reel.

One of my favorite actors working today, Paul Rudd is a dexterous serio-comic dynamo who could be the next Jack Lemmon, given the right roles. But you’d never be able to tell from this one. Stuck playing the Ben Stiller part as an increasingly embarrassed yuppie jerkwad, Rudd sits cringing on the sidelines as Carell accidentally ruins his life and stumbles through contrived, unpleasant encounters with his clingy ex-girlfriend (towering comedienne Lucy Punch) and a horny, egotistical artist played by Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement.

Poor newcomer Stephanie Szostak is stranded as Rudd’s wet-blanket fiancée, required to deliver the movie’s thankless prerequisite lectures on morality while lacking the acting chops to get a simple sentence across. Lovely gal, but she sounds like a drunk baby.

Every performance is hideously overscaled, and Roach’s unfortunate tendency to keep the camera within six inches of everybody underlines the performers’ strain. There’s a pleading quality on display that’s the antithesis of funny, as watching talented people pull faces in cramped, pore-exposing closeup inspires more pity than giggles. It’s shot so tightly I briefly considered changing my seat, just to get some distance. (Had I known everybody was going to play to the back row, that’s where I would’ve sat.)

Dinner for Schmucks scores a couple of laughs in its late stretches, eventually including the title scene that Veber’s original never quite got around to. A free-for-all freak show that descends into mayhem, it is undeniably amusing to watch smarmy financial honchos collapse under pressure, especially because Greenwood, Ron Livingston and the Daily Show’s Senior Black Correspondent Larry Willmore are such terrific assholes.

Alas, the sequence is also notable for neutering comic genius Zach Galifianakis with a silly costume. First, Carell has false teeth, now Galifianakis is wearing a cape? If that’s not enough, Clement likes to have sex dressed as a satyr. Why is Roach so hell-bent on turning these talented people into Carrot Top-like prop comics?

Grade: D+
Director: Jay Roach
Starring: Steve Carell, Paul Rudd
Running time: 114 minutes

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1. Sarah said... on Aug 20, 2010 at 02:43AM

“Actually the French title of the film is Le diner de cons, which translates to "dinner for idiots". The Dinner Game is the American name for the film. So Dinner for Schmucks, while a stupid name, isn't far off.

I loved the French film and in my experience Hollywood remakes of excellent French comedies seem to completely miss the point - witness Trois hommes et un couffin for example.”

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