Dinner for Schmucks isn’t a total clunker. It has some decent laughs provided by its two main stars, Steve Carell and Paul Rudd, doing the best they can with the material they’ve been handed. It’s material marred by large stretches of uncomfortable humor spiked with moments of true inspiration. Alas, those moments aren’t enough to put this one over the top.
Rudd plays Tim, a man trying to climb the corporate ladder and doing a fairly good job of it. After a poor bastard above him is fired, Tim seizes the opportunity and finds himself in line for a promotion and a sweet office. There’s one catch: In order to be promoted, Tim must attend an annual dinner with his company’s head honchos and bring an idiot to the gathering. The honchos use this occasion to mock their special guests and award the prize of biggest idiot when the evening is over.
This premise is pretty cruel but potentially funny nonetheless. Tim hedges at first, mainly because his girlfriend Julie—Stephanie Szostak, who has adorable teeth that kind of interrupt her dialogue in that cute Hilary Swank sort of way—doesn’t approve.
But then fate intervenes, and Tim hits Barry (Steve Carell) with his car. Barry was in the middle of the road collecting a dead mouse for his quaint, self-created collection of stuffed mice in panoramic settings. Barry is very strange; Tim realizes this, and he has his dinner guest.
Almost immediately, Barry dispatches hellfire on Tim’s personal life. He inadvertently invites a past, crazy girlfriend (Lucy Punch) over to Tim’s apartment after an online sex chat, and this leads to overall badness. It also leads to an awkward restaurant scene that represents the film’s low point, a point from which it never really recovers.
Schmucks does a lousy job with most of its female characters. Punch’s Darla is an unfunny travesty of a characterization that stops the film in its tracks whenever she’s on screen. Szostak’s Julie is a whiny party pooper who is portrayed as nothing but a pain in the ass that Tim should steer clear of. Her job as an art curator puts her in contact with Kieran (a horribly mistreated Jemaine Clement), a strange artist who would never achieve any level of success anywhere but in a stupid movie like this one. Julie’s allegiance to this artist makes her look clueless and severely lacking in credibility.
The dinner scene itself is good for some laughs, and even a few gut-busters. Zach Galifianakis stops by as one of the idiots, and he’s always good for guffaws. Carell’s Barry displays all of his prized mice, including a Benjamin Franklin one with a kite plugged into a socket … because it’s an electric kite. The scene is the movie’s best, but you have to wait a long time for it.
Carell is sort of in Brick mode, his hilarious and moronic Anchorman character. He fully immerses himself in the guise of Barry, and he’s the best reason to see the movie. His mousey creations are actually quite genuine and touching, especially the one that depicts an aspect of his failed marriage. At times, it’s hard to watch Carell mugging his ass off when Jay Roach’s direction is so terribly flat. Carell deserves better.
As does Rudd, who’s forced to play the straight man again. Rudd is one of filmdom’s best straight men, but he’s also capable of being the main laugh getter, and that’s what I hope to see him doing soon. I don’t want another Paul Rudd film where he is always reacting to other people being funny. I want more Wet Hot American Summer Rudd, when he’s the funniest thing in the movie, and not resorting to shtick like the old bad back routine.
I will say that when the humor doesn’t work in this movie, it isn’t of the complete groaner variety. It’s just flat, and there’s too much talent in this film for it to be flat for extensive periods of time. Although it’s not awful, it does stand as one of the summer’s biggest disappointments.