August 3, 2010

Movie Review: Dinner for Schmucks

dinnerforschmucks1_largeJay Roach's new comedy takes its inspiration from the 1998 French film The Dinner Game. The original was a big hit in its native land and I am sorry to say that I had not heard of it before now. I have read that it is a very funny film although it falls a bit to the mean-spirited side. Not that there is anything wrong with that, although that seems to be one of the ways this version differs with the earlier film, where this would appear to be a mean-spirited sort of film it is actually rather sweet-natured on the part of the leads. I am not informed well enough to say, although I do look forward to seeing the original. This movie, no matter how you want to slice it is downright funny. I know my friends and I had a lot of fun with it with frequent outbursts of laughter. Always a good sign.

Dinner for Schmucks completely hinges on the performances. It is the sort of movie where writing comes secondary to acting, direction, and editing. Yes, the writing is important, but with this film the writing is not really all that good. It is broad and the story is not all that deep. Everything is thrown in with the actors and their ability to breathe believable life into these characters. On top of that, it is up to the director to help draw those performances out and the editor (all to often an unsung hero) to get the beats and timing down to make the comedy work. While this is not the best comedy of all time or even this year, it is highly effective, quirky, and decidedly different from a lot of other big screen comedies.


The setup is very simple. A company head and his compadres at the top of the ladder get together once a month (they must now a lot of schmucks) for dinner. Each of them invite an idiot to come with them and unbeknownst to the idiot, a contest is held to crown to biggest idiot of all. Enter up and coming analyst Tim Conrad (Paul Rudd) who is angling in on a big promotion and a nice corner office. As a test for the potential position, Tim is invited to the dinner. Initially he is against it, but thinking about the job combined with his fortuitous meeting of Barry Speck (Steve Carrell) change his mind.

Of course, it is not so simple as just going to the dinner. Tim must deal with Barry and his earnest obliviousness until said dinner. This is no easy feat as Tim is trying to land a big client and Barry always seems to be right there ready to thwart his attempts with his misguided attempts to help out. Now, I could go about describing some of these entanglements, but the trailer should give you enough of an idea and I would not want to rob you of seeing these situations unfold on the big screen.


The comedy is built out of awkwardness. The situations build from simple misunderstandings, continue into the uncomfortable, before blowing up in some awkward fashion that leads to further confusion, misunderstanding, and comedy. All of it is sparked by Carrell and Rudd whose chemistry is perfect. Rudd does what has done so well for years, keep a straight face while his co-stars deliver the comedy. Yes, Rudd is funny, but it is in his exasperated reactions to the "tornado of destruction" played by Carrell does his thing. Steve Carrell turns up the sweet dial as his Barry, the man with the odd hobbies and sad life who maintains a completely positive outlook on life, no matter how misguided he may be.

It is my belief that had anyone else been cast in the key roles this movie could have been an utter disaster. It is an odd story that relies on the characters to draw you in. Jay Roach and screenwriters David Guion and Michael Handelman walk a fine line with this film, believability and implausibility, mean and sweet, terrible and good. It is a difficult balance to achieve and they do a good job of making it work here. Neither Tim nor Barry are bad guys and this is a key point to recognize that allows us to care about these characters. I found myself rooting for both, for Tim to open his eyes to his folly and for Barry to just keep on being himself. They write Barry as happy bloke who will gladly sacrifice himself for a good mouse body, someone who is completely at peace with who he is, and someone who believes in the inherent good of humanity. Does this make him a misguided character? Sure, but it also makes him very likable. As for Tim, he is presented as someone with ambition, with a desire to get ahead, who is blinded by his goals with no intention of being mean.


The movie is long, but it works. The length gives us time to spend time with these characters, to laugh at them, to laugh with them, to understand them. With the big laughs, awkward moments, and misunderstandings, there is heart. I genuinely wanted everything to work out and the closer to the end that we got, the more the heart emerged and the true idiots showed their faces.

There is so much more I haven't touched on, Jemaine Clement's wacky artist, Lucy Punch's stalker ex-girlfriend, the Swedes, the other idiots. So many funny elements. Oh yes, there is also the idea that if you played different music over the beginning, you could have the start of a messed up horror movie (if you've seen the movie, I am sure you know what I am talking about).

Bottomline. This is a good movie. Very funny, perfectly cast, well executed, and in the end a very pleasant experience. It does not quite have the depth to push it into greatness, but it draws very close. If you are in need of a good laugh, this is for you.



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