Originally Posted August 1st, 2010
There are few things worse than seeing a good premise squandered. Even worse is when a great premise can’t carry a movie with a stellar cast. You’ll rarely feel more robbed then when a trailer selling you a good idea and a strong cast doesn't make good on its obvious potential. Last year’s The Invention of Lying was one such film, having so much promise yet delivering on so little of it. You’d think a movie set in a world where everyone but Ricky Gervais has to tell the truth would be a laugh riot, but the final product didn’t live up to the pedigree. Dinner for Schmucks will probably go down as a film on par with Lying, because even with an A-list cast and a premise that seems golden, the end result is shockingly underwhelming.
Paul Rudd stars as Tim, a middle-of-the-pack business analyst trying to muscle his way into the upper echelons of his brokering firm, headed by a delightfully dickish Bruce Greenwood. In order to finally get the promotion and raise Tim desperately needs, he has to pass one final test: find a complete moron to be his plus one at a dinner party for the amusement of his co-workers. There, each employee’s dolt will compete for the prize of schmuck of the evening, an award which would surely grant Tim his promotion. Tim finds his idiot in Barry (Steve Carell), who he meets trying to save a dead mouse for his taxidermy creations, which he calls mouster-pieces. Barry’s various dioramas are a highlight of the film, especially his model recreating the invention of the BLT. Barry seems like a shoe-in for first place at the dinner, his intellect among the pantheon of Carell dimwits landing well below Michael Scott but only a hair above Brick Tamland.
What follows is the evening of buffoonery and wanton destruction that the trailers sold you on. But wait, first we need Tim and his curator girlfriend Julie (played by the lovely Stephanie Szostak) to get in a fight over Tim's willingness to subject some poor sap to humiliation so that he can get ahead. Also, Tim and Barry have to make sure Julie isn’t cheating on him by breaking into the house of Julie’s new client, the animalistic Kieran, played by up-and-comer Jermaine Clement, who's a variation on the Aldous Snow character Russell Brand popularized in Forgetting Sarah Marshall. And don’t forget, a psychotic stalker Tim had a one night stand with needs to show up courtesy of Barry’s bumbling interference. That covers only about half of the major subplots and characters in this film. If it isn’t apparent by now, then you should know that Dinner for Schmucks is not the quick chuckle fest about a bunch of bizarre characters at a fancy party the trailers would have you believe, but is instead an overstuffed comedy of mistaken identities and switched cellphones that feels every minute as long as its nearly two hour runtime.
The movie works hard to set up the characters and situations for the crescendo, the results usually being pretty enjoyable. The titular dinner, which only makes up about the last fifteen minutes of the movie, is every bit as awkward and funny as the trailer would make you think, but getting to that point is a laborious process. The stalker subplot ends in great fashion but to get to that point you have to go through two or three scenes that are more frightening than funny, making you wonder if the character was necessary at all. The plot is motivated almost entirely by people mistaking something or someone for something else, such as the aforementioned cell phone switch, or Barry attracting the stalker online by pretending to be Tim. Such unlikely plot elements might have worked ten years ago when director Jay Roach made Meet the Parents, but by now it feels forced. I think most people today are aware enough to check which phone is there’s when an identical copy is sitting next to it.
The hit-or-miss gag's coast on the cast's delivery as opposed to witty writing, a shame considering the slew of incredibly talented comedic actors forced to make the most out of such a lukewarm script. Carell is the real nucleus here, and his ability to inject heart into even the most block-headed of characters shows why he’s so sought after. The supporting cast is equally exceptional, particularly Zach Galifianakis as a fellow idiot who specializes in “mind control.” Unfortunately though, the most disappointing performance comes from the man who is probably the best actor of the bunch, Rudd, who’s never been blander in a leading role. Now, Rudd has proven himself to be an immensely talented and funny actor over the better part of the last decade, but here, he has to play the straight-man to all of Barry’s wild antics, which leaves little room for his character to breath. He’s defined by his girlfriend and his job but little else, and he probably could have been replaced by any other actor, it’s just that Paul Rudd has come to personify the nice but unlucky guy in recent years.
Somewhere in Dinner for Schmucks, there’s an interesting commentary about the uncertainty of our current employment landscape and the tough choices you need to make when you’re living beyond your means. More importantly, there’s a funny comedy featuring a bunch of talented actors goofing it up at a fancy dinner party. But both are saddled with a mundane, bloated script, that leans heavily on overused plot elements, and runs at a length that completely sinks the laughs per minute ratio. It's a frustrating, borderline maddening little failure, because if this kind of talent can't make good, you start to wonder who can.
2 out of 5
Directed by Jay Roach