Halfway through the summer our cinematic bloodlust has been sated: heroes worshiped, vampires sucked dry, minds thoroughly fucked. Now, at long last, the time has come to be tickled, and director Jay Roach delivers big with Dinner for Schmucks, undoubtedly the biggest laugh-fest of the season. The plot is weak and the resolution full of tired cornballery, but just as with his other franchises, Austin Powers and Meet the Parents, Roach shows off his uncany ability to craft taut comic setpieces, each more involved and convoluted than the next.
Paul Rudd plays Tim Conrad, a “stock broker, or something” looking to rise to the heighst of the seventh floor by reeling in $100 million Swedish client. The only thing between Tim and a juicy promotion is an idiot for a monthly dinner held by his boss, in which a cabal of douchebags gathers to make fun of the dumbest guest. To appease his kindhearted girlfriend (Stephanie Szostak), Tim turns the dinner down until he (literally) runs into Barry Speck, a lovable doofus played by Steve Carell. An amateur taxidermist who fits deceased rodents into his “mouseterpieces”, Barry turns out to be the perfect person to get Tim’s foot in the door. As he has done consistently ever since his smash success with 40-Year Old Virgin, Carell shines. Though Barry shares a number of ticks and mannerisms with The Office’s Michael Scott, there is no question that he is a wholly original take on the empathetic schlemiel.
No matter how hard he tries, Barry cannot do anything right. Almost immediately he brings Tim to the brink of destruction. He invites over an insane stalker (played by the brilliant Lucy Punch, who probably has the most laughs-per-minute in the film), tells Tim’s girlfriend to take a hike and plays a part in destroying most of his living room. Of course, in trying to fix everything Barry only makes things worse. The premise is as old as comedy itself, but it is the players that all make it work so well here. In particular there is a scene at a brunch meeting that provided one of the best belly laughs I’ve had in awhile. You see the whole trainwreck predictable unfurling, you just don’t think they will let the joke go that far; no one is that unlucky. But they do, and we get to relish in the worst-case scanario that is Tim’s weekend.
Now what’s up with that title? As I suspected, Barry Speck is classically defined as a schlemiel; an unintetionally awkward nudnik. Schmuck is much more visceral, much more derogratory. And then it dawned on me: the dinner is for the schmucks; the douchebags. Their guests are the hapless schlemiels. Enter the cornballery I mentioned earlier. Dinner for Schmucks is ultimately a moral tale, one about showing your true colors and not judging books by covers and other vomit inducing crap. If it were trying to live up to its Yiddishe title, the whole of the story would serve as an open-ended joke on the viewer. Instead it ties itself up in a neat little resolution.
Though Schmucks borrows a great deal from the film on which it is based, Francis Veber’s The Dinner Game, it serves as another example of American resolutions and how they differ from their European counterparts. Veber’s film ends with a joke, one which gets the idiot back into all of the trouble he started. Also, Rudd’s character is allowed to be a nice guy the whole time, dipping into his dark side when necessary (“The Tim you don’t know”) to move his status forward. In the original, the Rudd character is a complete asshole who gets his comeuppance. In other words, the whole message is backwards. The French jokes come from a much darker place than Roach’s. While this is not necessarily a bat thing, the Schmucks smacks of saccharine in its final frame.
Nonetheless, the laughs are so tight I’ll set all of that aside. Roach’s talent is constructing scenes and splendid looking from afar as a Rube Goldberg machine. Seeing the likely outcome before anything happens (knowing the sex-crazed stalker will screw everything up, recognizing that a blind fencer could lead to no good, etc.) adds immensely to the delight of watching the jokes come to life. For all its shortcomings, I laughed my ass off at this film. Undoubtedly, it will be the summer comedy of 2010.