Steve Carell plays another idiot savant in Dinner for Schmucks.
Of mice and men
By John Esther
"Dinner for Schmucks." Do you mean turning on C-Span and watching gluttonous politicians feed the fat cats corporate welfare? Badump Schhhhhhmuck!
Not as farcical as C-Span, director Jay Roach's (of Fockers and Austin Powers fame) take on the intersection between big business, idiots or idiotic entertainment lacks any real political or cultural satire that could have pushed this uneven flick into a hilarious hit.
One day Tim Wagner (Paul Rudd), an analyst working at a ruthless corporation, makes an illuminating Working Girl/"Bud Fox" impression on his boss, Lance Fender (Bruce Greenwood), giving the sixth-floor Tim the opportunity to break through the proverbial corporate ceiling and move up to the seventh floor. But is he really ready to move up? The upper echelon will judge Tim further by how well he locates and delivers a "collectible" fool (on the hill) to a business dinner at the boss' home where oblivious imbeciles vie for the top stupid spot.
While Tim has some reservations, his almost-fiancée, Julie (Stephanie Szostak), objects strongly to this kind of humor at the hidden humiliation of others. This creates a conflict for Tim as he desperately wants the promotion he needs to maintain the new way of live he has helped create for the couple while remaining true to Julie and his self -- or at least the best part(s) of his self. To further push the dilemma, Julie has been working closely with Kieran (Jemaine Clement), a pure, but highly pretentious, self-indulgent and successful artist with unrelenting "animal magnetism" who is devouring his "inner goat." In Julie's world of artists and art collectors, Tim does not believe he can beat Kieran at the latter's game, but if Tim makes enough money, then ha ha, Kieran can have all the orgies and zebra birthing experiences he wants!
The next morning while driving his new Porsche swiftly through the streets of Los Angeles -- where there are plenty of schmucks but probably fewer than California's State Capitol or a nearby stupefying state trying to push unconstitutionally racist laws -- Tim idiotically talks on the phone and texts. Still stuck in his moral/mate quandary, Tim is conjuring up ways to make it to the dinner party without making Julie mad as he drives right into Barry (Steve Carell).
Clueless that he was just hit by the negligent driver of a Porsche, Barry offers $10,000 to Tim to settle the matter -- money Barry does not have. As Barry gets to rambling around the scene of the crime (Tim seemingly leaves the Porsche in the middle of the road while they get acquainted), Tim soon realizes he has just received moronic manna and invites benighted Barry to the special dinner. "Everything has a reason."
However, before the movie even gets to the titular dinner, Barry drags Tim through an unforgettable night of one good, and not so good, intention after another gone awry, putting Tim through a host of disadvantageous adventures. Oh, Barry, you will never learn. And it appears neither will Tim who should have called the police on numerous occasions and thousands of dollars of damages ago.
Then there is tomorrow, which amps up the preposterousness...all the way until show and dinnertime.
An extravagant affair, Lance, Tim, his co-workers and the multimillionaire they are trying to impress, Müeller (David Williams), swarm the stupid. The guests -- a vapid ventriloquist (Jeff Dunham), a blind fatuous fencer (Christopher O'Dowd), a psychotic pet psychic (Octavia Spencer), a vacuous vulture handler (Patrick Fischler) and a guy with a big beard (Rick Overton) -- are very eccentric and clueless yet nowhere near as schmucky than, write, the kind of raving yahoos one would find at a Teabagger rally. Predictably, Barry has a good chance of winning, but he is going to have to defeat his archnemesis, a co-worker of his at the IRS/self-publishing author named Therman (Zach Galifianakis), to be the chump champ. (The two biggest buffoons in Dinner for Schmucks work for the IRS, how brave.)
Remarkably, the dinner party is the least funny segment of the film. With more screaming, more violence and traditional movie morale than ever, the desperation of the filmmakers to outdo the movie's preceding gags in the penultimate finale is embarrassingly obvious and thus the funny falls flat. If the writers had spent as much time rewriting the eponymous soiree as, write, casting spent creating the politically correct composite of the dinner party -- for every female or person of color character on the corporate side, there is his or her counterpart on the other side of schmuck-dom/dumb -- Dinner for Schmucks may have been more worthwhile. (I wonder why the filmmakers did not cast Tina Fey to play Sarah "snowbilly" Palin for the big night.)
Based on Francis Veber's film, Le Dinner de Cons, and written by David Guion and Michael Handelman, in a country where stupidity and ignorance scream aplenty, often with tragic results, art responding to the mental deterioration of a nation has plenty of content here to create. The contempt corporate culture has for the people -- as personified by the failures on Wall Street and much of the behavior after (and before) financial behemoths received vast amounts of corporate welfare -- displayed in Dinner for Schmucks is comparatively minimal. In fact, it could be well contested the corporate elements of this movie are treated better than their non-corporate counterparts.
However, having written that, beyond a few chuckles and guffaws throughout the movie, the saving grace of Dinner for Schmucks centers on a subplot involving a man and his mice. Amusing in its absurdity, there is a considerable amount of loss and loneliness expressed in this taxing/tax working/taxidermist's craft that is quite comically endearing. Since the movie's terrible trailer does not give the mice away, neither will I but, suffice it to say, it makes Dinner for Schmucks worth a home viewing.
Writing of which, Carell's The Office succeeds where this movie fails because the context of that TV show is grounded in a reality many of us are all too familiar with in real life: dealing with people we "think" are schmucks. Or C-Span.