REVIEW: The Joke's on the Audience in Dinner for Schmucks
The New Yorker recently ran an extremely detailed profile of Steve Carell, written by Tad Friend, that described the complex and mysterious process of, well, trying to make stuff funny. Friend listened and watched on the set of Carell's latest, Dinner for Schmucks, as Carell, his co-star Paul Rudd, director Jay Roach and assorted other cast members built a pivotal scene layer by improvisatory layer. Friend's piece is revelatory and entertaining; in fact, reading it is a lot more fun than watching the movie.
In Dinner for Schmucks Rudd plays Tim, a struggling executive who wants to make it big in his company. He gets his chance when he's invited to a special dinner event, hosted by his boss (Bruce Greenwood), which requires that every hotshot executive in attendance bring a total loser to the dinner table. The losers -- the schmucks, that is -- are there to be guffawed at and humiliated by the elite. As tests of manhood go, it's right up there with throwing stones at stray cats.
Tim's longtime girlfriend, Julie (Stephanie Szostak), an aspiring art-world type and a very nice girl, does not like this idea at all. But when Tim meets the perfect schmuck -- Carell's Barry, an IRS employee who, in his spare time, builds dioramas peopled with taxidermied mice -- he figures he may as well give this dinner-party thing a shot.
Hilarity ought to ensue. Instead, Dinner for Schmucks -- which borrows its central conceit from Francis Veber's 1998 French comedy, Le Diner de Cons -- ambles along waywardly for the first half hour before losing steam altogether. The problem isn't just that the gags feel airless and pointless; it's that the performers -- many of whom have done wonderful work in other settings -- seem more bent on pleasing each other than on entertaining us. The various allegedly hilarious situations Barry gets Tim into feel are completely canned: For example, while visiting Tim's apartment he secretly hops online, adopting Tim's identity to encourage a crazed one-night-stand who's turned into a stalker. Hoping to make those wooden setups work, the actors have embellished desperate little improvisational curlicues around them. (The screenplay is by David Guion and Michael Handelman, following Veber's original.) But the ongoing prattle between Rudd and Carell, in particular, just feels insular: You can almost see them trying not to crack up at one another, and somehow, we're left outside of the joke.
It's possible Roach -- whose credits include Meet the Parents and Meet the Fockers, as well as the Austin Powers movies -- was simply trying to set up the movie as a vast party by itself, one whose conviviality would enwrap the audience, too. And there are plenty of gags that almost work: Zach Galifianakis shows up as a scary IRS agent who intimidates his poor co-worker Barry with his amazing "mind control" skills, which essentially amount to a psychotic stare. The funniest part of Galifianakis' schtick, though, involves an article of clothing that those of you born after 1975 may never even have seen before. And Carell, whom I consider an off-and-on genius (as long as you don't make me watch Evan Almighty or Dan in Real Life again), has some terrific, throwaway moments, as when he slumps into a chair, loosens his shirt, and yanks off his necktie -- which is a clip-on. The gag itself is pedestrian; Carell's off-the-beat timing, and the forehead-smacking, "How did I not see that coming?" element of surprise, are what make it work.
But before long Carell's character, perpetually squirrelly-eyed and wearing a bland, rabbity smile, becomes a chore to watch. Even Rudd, who's both a marvelous straight man and a stealthy funny guy, recoils from him a little bit too believably. Because most contemporary mainstream comedies, unfortunately, have to have some deeper meaning, there is a moral to Dinner for Schmucks: Be nice to squares. And that moral would be acceptable, if only the movie didn't bore us so interminably along the way. It takes forever to get to the climactic dinner scene, and even then, the schmucky guests we've been waiting to see offer nothing but disappointment: There's a psychic who communicates with dead pets (Octavia Spencer), a blind fencer (Chris O'Dowd), a guy with a hungry pet vulture (Patrick Fischler). Each runs through his or her act as if trying out for the Gong Show.
The few moments of relief in Dinner for Schmucks come from some of the supporting performers, most notably the British actors David Walliams and Lucy Davenport as a pair of humorless Swiss kajillionaires. (Just looking at Davenport, with her robotic Ultra-Brite smile and electronic blue Village of the Damned eyes, made me laugh.) Jemaine Clement, of Flight of the Conchords, also shows up as a self-important, sex-obsessed artist, and sometimes he's funny-sexy, in a Cro-Magnon way. But the best things in Dinner for Schmucks by far are the mice, nattily dressed stuffed creatures who inhabit their tiny, meticulously detailed worlds with more life and spirit than their human counterparts do. In one of these tableaus, our little rodent friends gather 'round one side of a long, rectangular table to partake of the Last Supper. Now that's what I call a party.