The movie, a remake of a French farce called “The Dinner Game” is essentially the story of two men, Tim (Paul Rudd) an investment banker desperate to marry the girl of his dreams and get a new office on the coveted seventh floor of his firm’s building, and Barry (Steve Carell) the “schmuck” of the title who, unwittingly, both keeps Tim from realizing his dreams and pushes him further along the corporate ladder. Barry is a full time IRS employee and part time taxidermist with the strange hobby of making historical dioramas with stuffed mice. Their relationship culminates at the titular dinner, an annual event thrown by Tim boss Lance Fender (Bruce Greenwood) a ruthless businessman who “collects” unusual people. The deal is simple, his top employees bring the strangest people—but no mimes please, that’s a cliché—they can to an elaborate dinner. The winner gets the promotion Tim so dearly wants. Of course by the day of the dinner Tim begins to wonder who the real schmucks are— Lance Fender’s people or their unusual dinner guests.
“Dinner for Schmucks” has quite a few laughs, but few of them are deep belly laughs. It’s not exactly a laugh a minute—more like a giggle every now and again—which is OK, but it fundamentally fails despite the jokes because Carell’s character is so extreme that the movie forces us to do exactly the opposite of what it sets out to do. Because Barry is such an imbecile we laugh at him instead of with him. Carell has played characters like Barry before and pulled it off. The great trick of both “The Office” and “The 40 Year Old Virgin” was to take an awkward character and make him lovable. Carell is sweet enough to make Barry watchable—imagine Jim Carrey, too manic, or Mike Myers, too soft around the edges—but his usual magic is missing here. He wrings laughs out of the one joke idea and makes us giggle, but for the wrong reasons.
Rudd ably plays the Hardy to Carell’s Laurel, but he’s playing straight man to a movie jammed with schmucky people. For example Jemaine Clement plays another one of his now trademarked self important, non sequitur spewing–“Never try to mate a lioness and a penguin,” he says—comic characters. It’s only a slight variation on his work in “Gentlemen Broncos” and doesn’t hold a candle to the laughs he generated on “Flight of the Concords.” Ditto Zach Galifianakis as a philandering mild control expert. In a movie filled with kooks like this Rudd is the anchor.
“Dinner for Schmucks” isn’t an awful movie. You’ll laugh, or at least giggle, but director Jay Roach never pushes the comedy to the next level. The movie never really takes flight, even in the wild dinner scene climax that despite all the usual farce tropes—like fire and unexpected injury—it never feels out of control enough. Tone wise schmucks is way too sensible.