Reheated 'Dinner' Still Has Some Laughs
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
While watching "Dinner for Schmucks," you may get the feeling you've seen all this before. This feeling is not unwarranted. Paul Rudd plays a man who gains moral guidance and purpose from an unexpected source, just as he did in "I Love You, Man" and "Role Models." Steve Carell plays an off-kilter outsider with what is ultimately revealed as a decent heart, just as he did in "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" and "Get Smart." "Dinner for Schmucks" is itself an Americanization of a French farce, 1998's "Le Diner de Cons," with "Meet the Parents" director Jay Roach at the helm. While the whole enterprise is filling, it also feels a little bit reheated, more made from a mix off the shelf than made-to-order with fresh ingredients.
Rudd is Tim, an analyst at Fender Financial Services who craves a promotion, in no small part to impress his girlfriend Julie (Stephanie Szostak). His work has gotten him on the radar with his boss Fender (Bruce Greenwood), which leads to a new challenge. Tim is asked to participate in a regular dinner the executives at Fender throw as a competition to see who can invite the biggest loser to be put on display for the smirking amusement of the gathered money managers, with the clear implication that putting in effort for the ironically named "Dinner for Winners" will be rewarded. Tim is torn between revulsion and greed, at which point he runs into Barry (Carell), literally, as Barry is in the road finding a new subject for his hobby of mouse taxidermy.
With his tragic haircut and rodent-like overbite, Barry's clumsy, clueless and stilted -- and thus the perfect candidate for Tim to bring to the "Dinner for Winners." Much like Francis Veber's "La Cage Aux Folles," similarly Americanized as "The Birdcage," the story here contains plenty of familiar farce elements -- overheard conversations, poorly thought-out schemes, inadvisable impersonations and the right thing ultimately being done only after multiple efforts to do the wrong thing have failed spectacularly. Roach's directorial approach seems to be limited to getting out of his actor's way -- there is a nice touch of style as Zach Galifianakis, playing an IRS manager who believes he has the ability to control the human mind, is shot in a series of ever-nearer close-ups as he unleashes his power -- and by and large the approach works.
It works in no small part because the cast around Rudd and Carell is so good. Jemaine Clement (of TV's "Flight of the Conchords") plays a self-centered artist in a way that's both overdone and understated. Galifianakis glares out over his beard to surprising effect, and David Walliams (of "Little Britain") is excellent as Herr Mueller, the vain Swiss upper-class twit Tim's desperate to land as a client for Fender. But the film, and we, keep coming back to Rudd and Carell, and even if "Dinner for Schmucks" is just another reiteration of things they've done many times before -- Rudd with his bemused, askew deadpan, Carell with his halting awkwardness -- it is at least well-executed. Roach's screenwriters (David Guion and Michael Handelman) open up Veber's story from its roots on the stage, and also manage one of the most silly-but-sad, funny-but-true sight gags I've seen in a long time, as Tim peruses some of Barry's work and unlocks a little of what makes Barry tick.
"Dinner for Schmucks" could have used a little more of that kind of inspiration, even though the laughs do come through fairly consistently and with a minimum of padding around them. It seems mean and sour to state that your biggest complaint about a comedy is that it didn't consistently kick into the realm of the truly hysterical, and yet nothing served up in the movie is at the level of comedy or consistency attained in "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" or "Role Models." Considering that Roach is the director who wrung three films out of such meager beginnings as "Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery" and "Meet the Parents," it feels almost inevitable we'll be offered a second serving of "Dinner for Schmucks" at some point, but it's hard not to think the portion offered here is just enough to satisfy anyone looking for a few laughs.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.