Supper comes surprisingly late in Dinner for Schmucks. This loose – extremely loose – remake of Francis Veber’s French-language 1998 farce The Dinner Game radically departs from the original film, which took place almost entirely during the eponymous meal.
The change was not necessarily bad. Funny as it was, Veber’s film became a bit claustrophobic after a while. But the scenarios screenwriters David Guion and Michael Handelman have created for Dinner for Schmucks director Jay Roach (Meet the Parents, Austin Powers) are weak and uninventive. Although the cast tries mightily to keep the humor spinning, the laughs are disappointingly sparse.
Paul Rudd reprises the same type of character he’s been playing for years: Tim, a nice, easygoing guy eager to land a recently vacated job at his investment-analyst firm. But first he must win over his boss (Bruce Greenwood) by attending the company executives’ monthly dinner party to which each employee brings a gigantic moron. The guests don’t know they are being judged for their ingrained stupidity. The guy who invites the biggest idiot wins – and for Tim, winning means getting that promotion.
In one of the film’s funniest scenes Tim finds his guest when he accidentally hits Barry (Steve Carell) with his car. Barry is a divorced IRS accountant whose hobby is creating elaborate dioramas from dead mice. He is also, so far as common sense, intelligence and intuition go, more than a little lacking. I laughed uncontrollably when Barry tries to buy off Tim so he won’t call the cops after the accident (the scene is a lot funnier than it sounds), and Carell and Rudd mesh so well that Dinner for Schmucks initially promises to be a riot.
But then the movie goes off on a number of tangents, such as a belabored detour involving Tim’s girlfriend Julie (Stephanie Szostak), who is curating the work of a ridiculously self-important artist (a game Jemaine Clement). The film spends an inordinate amount of time with bits of business, such as Tim’s bad back, that slow the pace with wan results. The sudden reappearance of Darla (Lucy Punch), an old one-night stand Tim regrets, should have been uproarious – the woman is a relentless stalker and sexual dominatrix who simply won’t take no for an answer – but most of her scenes seem forced and borderline misogynistic (I know this is a silly comedy, but still).
After almost 90 minutes, Dinner for Schmucks finally gets to the awaited meal, which doesn’t exactly disappoint (there’s an ingenious bit involving a blind fencer who fancies himself a champion), but it doesn’t feel worth the wait, either. Tim’s character is so wishy-washy and easy to manipulate he ends up irritating you despite Rudd’s considerable charm. Carell has few peers at playing dolts, but Barry has nothing on The Office’s Michael Scott, a role that may end up sabotaging the actor’s career (he’ll probably never find a part that fits him so well). The most amusing thing about Zach (The Hangover) Galifianakis as Barry’s bizarre boss is his strange sweater.
The hands-down funniest elements in Dinner for Schmucks turn out to be the mice dioramas, which become increasingly clever – even touching – as the film unfolds, then laugh-out-loud hilarious over the end credits. But you know you’re in trouble when the best thing in your movie is a bunch of dead rodents.
Cast: Steve Carell, Paul Rudd, Zach Galifianakis, Jemaine Clement, Stephanie Szostak, Lucy Punch, Bruce Greenwood.
Director: Jay Roach.
Screenwriters: David Guion, Michael Handelman.
Producers: Walter F. Parkes, Laurie MacDonald, Jay Roach.
A Paramount Pictures release. Running time: 114 minutes. Vulgar language, brief nudity, sexual situations, adult themes.