As the title implies, Dinner for Schmucks is a film that asks us to spend 114 minutes in the company of people we don’t particularly like. Because really, that’s the definition of a schmuck; people who irritate us, frustrate us and whose mere presence makes us wish were somewhere, anywhere else.
And hey, if that’s the kind of experience director Jay Roach (Austin Powers, Meet the Parents) wants from his remake of Francis Veber’s French farce The Dinner Game, then all the power to him. He’s done a bang-up job.
But if Roach’s intention was to actually make us laugh, then there is a bit of an issue, because the thing about watching incredibly annoying people do incredibly annoying things is that it tends to be – surprise! – incredibly annoying.
The flimsy but workable premise concerns nice-guy Tim (Paul Rudd), who in an effort to get a long sought-after promotion, accepts an unusual dinner invitation from his boss that requires him to bring along someone with a “special talent” – code for an A-grade idiot – so that they can be ridiculed for entertainment. By chance, Tim bumps into the blissfully ignorant Barry (Steve Carrell), a taxation officer by day and rodent taxidermist by night, who is so far beyond stupid, it’s nothing short of a miracle he’s still among the living. He’s the perfect specimen for the dinner, but Barry shows up at Tim’s apartment a day earlier and won’t leave, systematically but unintentionally making his life a living hell. Ours too.
Schmucks, more so than Roach’s earlier films Meet the Parents and its sequel Meet the Fockers, belongs to that mangy breed of American comedy that confuses situations that are genuinely funny for situations that are agonizingly awkward. Such discomfort stems from the fact that these situations cannot decide whether they’re based in the real world or an absurdist one. They’re stuck in limbo because Hollywood, in an effort not to offend a single soul willing to spend money on a movie ticket, wouldn’t dare make a flat-out farcical comedy that runs the risk of alienating wallets.
But therein lies Schmucks’ dilemma; absurdism hasn’t room for half-measures. When making a farce, authentic characters, realistic scenarios, moral lessons and happy endings should be left at the door. Schmucks insists on having all of these things, thus undermining its every attempt to be bitter and bizarre.
The biggest victim here is Paul Rudd (Role Models, I Love You, Man). Rudd is a tremendous comedic actor, a master of deadpan delivery, whose talents are completely squandered as he is forced to play it straight as Mr. Every Man. This is a mistake; he shouldn’t be so relatable and grounded. We’re then asked to sympathise with Tim’s desire to get a promotion so that he can woo his girlfriend, Julie (Stephanie Szostak; The Rebound). This is also a mistake; he shouldn’t be so likeable and honourable. That just makes us loathe Barry, the aforementioned schmuck, for putting Tim in a position where he risks losing his girlfriend, his job and his sanity. We like the guy, so why on Earth would we want to see his life crumble?
Perhaps if Rudd was allowed to go as off-the-wall crazy as Carell (Despicable Me, Date Night), their screen partnering mightn’t have been so frustrating. To be fair, Carrell has the right kind of goofy energy as Barry, he’s just made so hopelessly irritating because he’s messing about in an absurdist movie while Rudd is stuck back in reality. As such, the most enjoyable moments to be had in Schmucks involve the wacky supporting characters; Jemaine Clement (TV’s Flight of the Conchords) as the existential and self-absorbed artist Kieran, Zach Galifianakis (The Hangover, Up in the Air) as the nutty IRS agent Therman and Octavia Spencer (The Soloist, Halloween II) as the animal clairvoyant Madam Nora. The writing is never witty enough for these characters to garner more than a chuckle, but they do represent the film’s farcicality at its best.
The rest of the time, though, Dinner for Schmucks sucks.