Dinner For Schmucks is one of those movies where the set-up tells you exactly how the movie’s going to start, what twists and turns the plot is going to take along the way, and how the whole thing will end. It’s not the most original story (even the original French version, Le Diner De Cons or The Dinner Game, isn’t a very original story). However, the joy of most movies isn’t the destination, but the journey.
Paul Rudd plays Tim, a financial analyst who wants to make the big time and climb his way to the seventh floor, where the executives, movers, shakers, and general money-makers reside. He catches the eye of his boss, Fender (Bruce Greenwood), after coming up with a brilliant plan to get his foot in the door of Swiss industrialist Müeller (David Walliams), whose company is failing due to poor management, but whose personal fortune is massive and in need of financial managing.
There’s just one catch: in order to get the promotion, Tim has to participate in a so-called “dinner for winners,” which is basically a group of executives who get together, bring the stupidest person they can find to dinner, and then sit around mocking the fools.
Tim, thanks to a pique of conscience and his girlfriend Julie (Stephanie Szostak), is about to cancel the dinner and blow his chance at the big time, until he accidentally runs over Barry (Steve Carell) with his Porsche.
Barry is a sweet, dimwitted man who loves taxidermy and works for the IRS. Tim is kind of a callow prick who really wants a nice office. You see where this is going.
The cast is really stellar. Paul Rudd makes a great put-upon straight man. Steve Carell is just wonderful as the adorable, well-meaning, endearing, and blissfully stupid Barry. Add in excellent support from Walliams, Ron Livingston (as a rival of Tim’s), Zach Galifianakis (as a rival of Barry’s who “has the power of mind control”), and Jemaine Clement (doing his best “Aldous Snow but an artist”), and you’ve got a pretty strong lineup of people who are or can be very funny.
It’s not that the movie isn’t funny, but… the cast would lead you to expect great things, rather than just above average laughs. The script, from Francis Veber’s source material as adapted by David Guion and Michael Handelman, is very funny quite a lot of the time, but most of the serious laughs come from Carell. Other characters get the occasional laugh or chuckle, but it seems as though the jokes are spread a bit too thin, thus most characters don’t get a chance to come into their own and establish a comic presence.
Maybe there were a few too many big names, or maybe the movie concentrated a little too much on establishing that Barry is just so nice and kind and good-spirited that, whenever Tim does anything bad to him, or gets angry at him, it actually makes the audience (and by that I mean me) feel kind of sad. It’s actually borderline heart wrenching at times to watch Barry suffer, especially when he realizes that his only friend Tim might not be a true friend.
While Jay Roach has directed some very big and very successful movies, none of them have even tried to walk this kind of delicate balance between sympathy and comedy. Jay Roach is not who I’d associate with subtle, as the many poo jokes in the Austin Powers series could attest to. He does a better job handling the zany screwball antics portion of the movie, but he lingers a bit too long on the pathos, which slows the movie down too much and extends it about 15 minutes too long past its freshness date.
It’s not that Dinner For Schmucks is bad, far from it. Steve Carell is very sweet as Barry. However, the movie is a bit too long and a bit too sad. It’s sweet and it ends nicely, but Barry is such a sympathetic character that the journey to Tim’s turnaround is just a bit too unpleasant to really provoke much belly-laughter. Mostly, I just feel bad for Barry and the rest of the dinner for winners crew.
US correspondent Ron Hogan has memories of being the butt of jokes beyond his control (as do most people), so maybe it’s not the best plot to put in a movie if you don’t want the audience to get bummed out in the middle. Find more by Ron at his blog, Subtle Bluntness, and daily at Shaktronics and PopFi.