There are two types of comedies: the “it’s funny because it’s true” variety and the absurdist variety. Dinner for Schmucks is definitely the latter, though it taps into an impulse most of us can recognize: to belittle others in order to reassure our own egos.
It’d be nice to think that we left such insecurities on the schoolyard, but—pardon the pun—let’s not “kid” ourselves. Dinner for Schmucks concerns the fallout surrounding a longstanding extracurricular practice at private-equity firm Fender Financial. Boss-man Lance Fender (Bruce Greenwood) hosts a top-secret monthly dinner to which each invited guest must bring along the biggest rube he can find. We’re talking idiots, morons, ninnies, dunces, oafs, buffoons, and dorks. We’re talking schmucks.
This puts upwardly mobile analyst Tim Conrad (Paul Rudd) in a tough position. Invited into the inner circle, Tim is expected to throw some unsuspecting simpleton under the proverbial bus. As soon as he resolves to stand on principle, Tim drives his car right into the perfect fool, a boob so opaque he’s downright eager to be fodder for ridicule. This man is Barry Speck (Steve Carell), a taxman and amateur taxidermist whose bizarre hobby of creating sweetly romantic dioramas from mouse corpses (“mouse-terpieces,” he calls them) and seemingly single-digit IQ qualify him as an outsider artist.
If this sounds vaguely familiar, pat yourself on the back, art-house patron. Dinner for Schmucks is “inspired by” Francis Veber’s Le diner de cons, distributed in the US as The Dinner Game. Adapted by David Guion & Michael Handelman (The Ex) and directed by Jay Roach (the Austin Powers trilogy), Schmucks is a fairly typical Hollywood bromantic comedy in that one suspects that the improvisatory chops of its likeable star duo made them real-time script doctors. The A-list project also channels a steady stream of chuckles from a particularly strong cast of poker-faced supporting players, among them Jemaine Clement and Kristen Schaal of Flight of the Conchords, Zach Galifianakis (The Hangover), Ron Livingston (Office Space), and Larry Wilmore (The Daily Show).
Done up with an overbite and a nerdy windbreaker, Carell delivers an unsurprising but reliably stupid-sweet turn as the malapropism-prone Barry. Meanwhile, Rudd does his best to convince us that he’s both ambitious enough to be telling the truth when he confesses to his girlfriend Julie (Stephanie Szostak) a “me you don’t know” (“I hate him, but I need him”), and also redeemable. As matters steadily progress from bad to worst, the stakes are suitably high: a $100 million deal with a Swiss investor (David Walliams of cult fave Little Britain), Tim’s promotion, and his future life with Julie.
It all relies on a suspension of disbelief that an idiot savant as simple-minded but not quite mentally challenged as Barry could exist. Of course, at the dinner-party climax (and during the climb to it), Roach allows the audience to have its cake and eat it, too, delighting in idiocy just like the rich jerks, but experiencing a reassuring catharsis of guilt. I’d rather Schmucks didn’t let us off the hook so easily, but that’s entertainment.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]