Thursday, July 29, 2010

Review: "Dinner for Schmucks"

"Dinner for Schmucks" is a pretty darn funny comedy. Not laugh-a-minute funny, as the good bits are spread a little thin. When it hits, though, it hits on all cylinders.

Mostly I think this is due to an extraordinarily strange performance by Steve Carell. But we'll get to that in a minute. First I'd like to discuss the title.

"Schmuck" is Yiddish, a pejorative for the male sex organ, and is generally considered to be a swear word. If it weren't the title of a mainstream Hollywood movie, it's unlikely any newspaper would allow me to use it in print (or even the wild, wild Web).

The interesting thing is that nobody in the film is identified as being Jewish. In fact, the rich businessman who organizes the titular dinners -- in which his lackeys compete to see who can bring the biggest idiot as his guest -- is about as WASP-y as you can get.

No one even uses the word "schmuck" at any point in the movie. So while I'm all in favor of using foreign swear words for the coy naughtiness, I'm a little confused as to how they arrived at this title. Anyway.

The straight man is played by Paul Rudd, a perpetual cinematic wing man finally getting a shot at the lead. (If only we could cast him and Judy Greer together in a romantic comedy, the world would feel right.)

Rudd plays Tim, an analyst at a company specializing in buying up distressed companies, stripping and selling them. He wants to move up to the seventh floor where the big boys play, leapfrogging each other to impress the top dog, Fender (Bruce Greenwood).

The boss likes Tim's gumption in pursuing a deal with an eccentric Swiss tycoon, but has a condition for the promotion: He must take part in the monthly dinner competition. But where is he to find an idiot?

Then Barry arrives, as if sent from above. Played by Carell with a bad haircut and some prosthetic teeth, Barry is an IRS agent whose real passion is taxidermy. In his case, Barry likes to collect dead mice, stuff them and pose them in romantic little dioramas -- having picnics, riding bikes, etc.

Tim runs Barry over with his car, and immediately senses that something is amiss when Barry offers to pay him to make the whole thing going away. Clearly, the patsy has arrived.

Carell gives Barry a dim-witted sweetness that's hard not to like. It's not so much that he's stupid, but his experience with meaningful human interaction is so limited, he's like a kindergartner among surly eighth-graders.

For instance, Barry has a boss who has convinced him he can take control of his mind through hypnosis, even though he's only marginally more sophisticated than Barry. He's played by Zach Galifianakis in hilariously self-serious turn -- at one point, he turns his face dark purple and then back to normal again, like switching a light. They don't teach that at the Actor's Studio.

The actual dinner happens rather late in the game. Barry shows up at Tim's a day early, and in a matter of hours has managed to estrange his girlfriend Julie (Stephanie Szostack), a sensitive artistic type who's appalled that Tim would participate in the cruel game.

This sends her running into the hirsute arms of Keiran (Jemaine Clement), a pretentious artist whose works all involve depictions of himself. Keiran envisions himself as some kind of wise, horny satyr with the lower half of a goat, but the real hindquarters he resembles belong to a horse.

Things really get rolling with the arrival of Darla (Lucy Punch), a stalker ex-girlfriend of Tim's. She tries playing a sex game with Barry, who remains colossally clueless.

"Would you like to lick cheese off my naked body?" Darla teases. "Oh, I'm sure Tim has plates," Barry responds.

Directed by Jay Roach from a screenplay by David Guion and Michael Handelman, "Dinner" is a fast-paced farce with a decent helping of big laughs. Oh, and it's based on a French comedy called "Dinner for Idiots" ... so still no clue on where the schmucks came from.

3 stars out of four


  1. This is one crappy review. Why doesn't the critic just copy the screenplay? If I want to know the plot, I'll see the movie.

    The first couple of paragraphs are all right, and there's a paragraph or so near the end that doesn't explain the plot, but I had to skip everything else. Revealing the plotlines is lazy critiquing.

  2. Thanks for the feedback. It's always a balancing act in deciding how much of a film's plot to describe, and how much of a review should be devoted to doing so.

    Writing film reviews involves a certain amount of straight reporting -- explaining what the movie is about so people have a notion. You can't assume that everyone has seen a preview or read an article about it. If you just launch straight into lauding or lamenting a movie, without having "set the table," it will throw your audience off.

    In this case, I tried to weave revelations about the story with my observations and opinions about it. Obviously, the balance was not to your taste.

  3. Dinner for Schmucks has too many flaws for it to be a great comedy, but it's still a pretty darn good one. Some supporting characters outstay their welcome, some characters behave in ways that nobody ever would (the whole "dinner for idiots" thing seems too cruel for a real business to host), and you can generally see where the story is going from a mile away. Still, I laughed a lot during this movie and, thanks mostly to Steve Carell's comedic talents, Dinner for Schmucks turned out to be a very funny movie.