In Steve Carell’s first few episodes of the American version of The Office, his character, Michael Scott, hewed closely to the template created by the series’ British mastermind, Ricky Gervais. Scott, like David Brent before him, was cruel and obtuse, a nightmare of a boss who thinks he’s a leader of men.
But in the United States, audiences didn’t take to so bleak a comic vision, and soon, Michael Scott was transformed from a monster into a genial buffoon—a lovable, lovelorn doofus who may behave badly at times but whose heart is generally in the right place. The tone of the series evolved from harsh satire to affectionate, gentle comedy. Ratings success ensued. That’s a lesson well-learned by the filmmakers behind Carell’s new movie, Dinner for Schmucks, an American reworking of the 1998 French comedy Le Dîner de Cons.
Francis Veber’s original, a short, sharp comedy of manners, was ostensibly about a weekly dinner party to which wealthy businessmen bring carefully selected idiots. But, in fact, the movie never makes it to the dinner party in its 80 minutes. Instead, it punishes its ostensible protagonist—a jerk of a book editor who revels in the delights of the dinner with idiots—with an escalating series of indignities and tortures, most of them innocently perpetuated by his moron for the night. That is to say, for all the fun poked at short, goony François Pignon (Jacques Villeret)—who makes maquettes of world landmarks out of matchsticks—the film hates his asshole tormentor so much that it is fundamentally on the side of the idiots.
Not so Dinner for Schmucks, directed by Jay Roach, which takes the snobbish, cruel editor of the original and turns him into Paul Rudd, the nicest young man you’re ever likely to meet. Rudd plays Tim, an analyst at a private-equity firm who is only gunning for a corner office to convince his girlfriend he’s marriage material. “That’s messed up,” Tim says, upon hearing about the dinner for schmucks, and he’d never do it if he weren’t forced into it by circumstance. He quotes Baudelaire, for goodness’ sake!
Meanwhile, bowl-cut-sporting, windbreaker-wearing Barry (Carell)—the schmuck in question—is not an unctuous bumbler like François Pignon, but rather borderline mentally disabled. That is the only conclusion I can reach after watching credulous Barry: 1) admit that he has no idea what a clitoris is; 2) take the admonition “Don’t leave that chair” so seriously that he carries the chair with him wherever he goes; and 3) gleefully smash bottles of wine against the walls of Tim’s apartment. The only thing he is good at is making intricate dioramas out of taxidermied mice—dioramas that are, thanks to this film’s impeccable technical credentials, so lovely and miraculous you don’t understand why everyone in the movie thinks they’re so stupid.
Casting my mind back over Carell’s career for an analog to Barry, I was reminded not of Michael Scott or Andy Stitzer, the blithely virginal 40-year-old he played in his breakout role. Instead, Barry seems like a close cousin to Brick, the near-incoherent weatherman (“I love lamp!”) with an IQ of 48 whom Carell played in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. Essentially, what we have here is a mainstream comedy in which a totally nice guy has his relationship and career nearly ruined by Brick Tamland, but then, at the end, has to make a speech about how Brick Tamland is really the best—and not an idiot at all. So I hope you can see why maybe that story wouldn’t be as touching as the filmmakers apparently think it is.
Dinner for Schmucks is funny, sure. How can it not be, with good comic actors such as Carell and Rudd—plus Zach Galifianakis, Jemaine Clement, Kristen Schaal and Ron Livingston? (Stephanie Szostak, who plays Tim’s girlfriend, isn’t funny at all, but don’t worry: She’s extremely pretty.) Even if some bits fall flat—the carnivorous ex-flame of Tim’s played by Lucy Punch, for example, is aggressively unfunny—any movie starring that many talented comedians, knitted of the funniest stuff in a reported 900,000 feet of film, is bound to have its share of laughs.
And rest assured, no American comedy is going to call itself Dinner for Schmucks without showing us the actual dinner for schmucks, which is, naturally, this movie’s comic apogee. There’s a blind fencer, a ventriloquist who’s married to a slutty dummy, and a guy who French-kisses his vulture. They’re all idiots or possibly mentally ill. Paramount Pictures and director Roach would like to invite you to a dinner they’re hosting, at which you are welcome to laugh at these poor jerks. Now, that’s a little messed up.
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Dinner for Schmucks was directed by Jay Roach; written by David Guion and Michael Handelman; and stars Steve Carell, Paul Rudd and Zach Galifianakis. Rated PG-13. Countywide.
This review appeared in print as "Messed Up: Mental disability as comedy in Dinner for Schmucks."