I was not at all surprised after watching “Dinner For Schmucks” that it was directed by Jay Roach (“Austin Powers” and the “Fockers” series) and Sacha Baron Cohen (“Borat” and “Brüno). Both specialize in combining raunchy and putting their unlucky victims into the most uncomfortable of situations. They also manage to (most of the time) perform this feat successfully as well as comically. And all of these films manage to be hits to some degree. I presume that people just love to watch others go through hell onscreen.
These situations come about because of an opportunity that is thrown toward the film’s protagonist Tim Conrad (Paul Rudd). Part of a once-in-a-lifetime chance to move up the corporate ladder at his job at Fender Federal, his boss Lance Fender (Bruce Greenwood) invites him to a dinner get-together in which upper-level employees bring the biggest idiots and losers they can locate (unbeknownst to the idiots themselves) and see who can compete for the guarded prize of the night’s biggest idiot. This event is known under the deceptive misnomer of “Dinner For Winners.”
As twisted and mean-spirited as this affair sounds, Tim finds a godsend in Barry Speck (Steve Carell). Barry is certainly an odd breed of character. He is an IRS employee who in his spare time dabbles in taxidermy and creates works of art using stuffed dead mice as mannequins (he affectionately calls these works of art “Mouseterpieces”). He has created dozens of these kinds of dioramas, including of the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper. Tim forms an acquaintanceship with Barry, assuming he’d probably be a shoo-in for top prize and would make him, in turn, a shoo-in for promotion at his job.
But the hard truth is that, in the words of Tim in the film, Barry is a sweet guy but a tornado of destruction. Before he knows it, the state of his apartment, his relationship with his girlfriend (Stephanie Szostak), and his business negotiations with some Swiss investors are placed in jeopardy thanks to Barry’s doing. It’s not that he doesn’t mean well (and sometimes he means TOO well), it’s just that the guy is either unaware or unobservant of the painfully catastrophic consequences he creates in Tim’s favor. It almost becomes too discomforting to laugh as Tim suffers. That is, almost.
We have seen this kind of formula before; it is basically just a modern-day adaptation of “The Odd Couple.” Even if you look at this film’s history (or maybe you are already familiar), this is just an American remake of a wildly successful French film “The Dinner Game.” From my knowledge (as I have NOT seen the original), this is a slightly nicer and much less acidic version of the source material. Even so, I still managed to really enjoy what Jay Roach had to offer.
While relatively low on story, my attention was grabbed by the many painful setpieces presented in the middle section. Rudd and Carell play off of each other with such ease while still providing sincerely riotous dialogue. Several other smaller parts even pack a humorous wallop, such as Jemaine Clement’s (of Flight Of The Conchords fame) playing a pretentious, sex-fueled artist named Kieran Vollard and Zach Galifianakis as Barry’s telepathic boss who ends up even fighting Barry for the coveted prize at the dinner scene. Something I’ve noticed as of late is how hard of a laugh Galifianakis can achieve just from the way he dresses. Yeah, it works once again here.
While not as memorable as it probably could have been, “Dinner For Schmucks” is one of the best comedies of the summer movie season (probably my second favorite, behind “Get Him To The Greek”). Despite what could have been a malicious plot setup, it winds up not being as offensive as it seems. Aside from connecting with mostly all of the central characters, the film also points out the general idiosyncrasies, oddities and stupidity in basically all walks of life. In the end, it is the ones who made fun of the fools who are then classified as the fools themselves.