There are two striking things about Dinner For Schmucks: eyes and teeth. A film that appears to trip all over itself in an effort to be entertaining and amusing at every turn, Dinner For Schmucks (directed by Jay Roach, a specialist in unsubtle comedies such as Meet The Parents and the Austin Powers movies) infuriates almost as much as it entertains.
The cast, in comedy terms, is stellar. Steve Carell and Paul Rudd, last seen together in Anchorman and The 40-Year-Old Virgin, team up once again, and are joined by Jemaine Clement and Kristen Schaal (both fantastic in Flight Of The Conchords), Zach Galifianakis (The Hangover), while The IT Crowd‘s Chris O’Dowd shows up as a blind fencing champion.
Rudd plays Tim Conrad, an ambitious financial executive whose chance of a promotion comes in an unusual form. Having impressed boss, Lance Fender (Bruce Greenwood), with his business acumen, Conrad’s invited to an executive’s ‘dinner for idiots’, in which the firm’s high flyers each bring along the most eccentric misfit they can find. The exec judged to have brought along the most bizarre guest is crowned the winner.
Initially reluctant to accept his invitation, Conrad changes his mind when he accidentally drives into Barry Speck (Steve Carell) in his Porsche. A worker for the IRS, Barry spends his spare time making dioramas out of dead mice (less macabre than it sounds), and Tim immediately realises he’s found his dinner guest.
What follows is a brisk, largely physical comedy that only fitfully comes to life. Most of the scattershot laughs are derived from Speck’s clumsiness, and how it clashes with Conrad’s clean-cut, ordered way of life.
Speck’s dim-witted ineptitude brings about one disaster after another. Conrad’s back is put out of line within minutes of their first meeting (why do bad backs feature so heavily in comedies?), an insane ex-girlfriend is summoned up, and a Porsche is slowly destroyed, like the luckless car in The Big Lebowski.
Schmucks‘ great cast is occasionally ill cast or underused. David Walliams is bizarre as a vain Swiss billionaire, while Kristen Schaal, despite some great improvised lines, is relegated to a flimsy secretary role. Jemaine Clement is better suited to his role as an oddly disturbing artist, however, and Zack Galifianakis is perfect as a smug tax auditor with a dubious talent for mind control.
Carell and Rudd, meanwhile, are an engaging enough double act, with Rudd’s growing irritation playing off well against Carell’s childlike eagerness to please.
Sadly, Schmucks‘ writing frequently lets both the cast and premise down. Carell’s character is particularly muddled. He’s intelligent enough to hold down a job, and artistic and imaginative enough to create the rodent dioramas that prove to be the highlights of the film. Despite this, he’s frequently portrayed as an imbecile, easily duped and apparently incapable of using a computer.
The tone of the film is similarly confusing. Jay Roach frequently goes for brash, broad humour, whether it’s a roaring ex-girlfriend smashing up a sports car or a Steve Carell falling through a glass set of shelves. Despite this, it’s the film’s quieter, more whimsical moments that work best. When Carell’s acting rather than mugging, such as a great scene where he describes his break-up with his wife, he’s both funny and moving.
Carell’s concluding dinner speech, where he uses his collection of dioramas to tell a story of hope and dreams, is perhaps the film’s most well constructed scene. It’s not long, though, before the mayhem begins again, with all its rolling eyes and flashing teeth.
Dinner For Schmucks is a fun, undemanding comedy, therefore, with perhaps too much emphasis on pratfalls and predictably cringe-inducing scenes of awkwardness. It’s not in the same league as Carell and Rudd’s best film together, Anchorman, or as consistently funny as The 40-Year-Old Virgin, but it’s nevertheless worth a watch, if only for the whimsical mouse dioramas.
The DVD comes with a few extras, including a ‘we had a great time’ ‘making-of’ featurette, and some deleted scenes (which probably deserved to be trimmed out, if we’re honest).
The ‘Schmuck Ups’ featurette is far better, combining outtake material with alternate versions of some of the improvised scenes.