Here’s the premise of “Dinner for Schmucks”: Steve Carell and Paul Rudd star in the American remake of a French film (of a French play) about a guy who climbs the corporate ladder by competing to supply a company dinner party with its most pathetic guest. See if you can guess who plays the guy and who plays the guest?
It’s not that Rudd’s Tim, a mild-mannered private-equity analyst, necessarily enjoys the public humiliation of unsuspecting idiots. “That’s messed up,” he says more than once. It’s not even that he’s overwhelmed by his own careerist drive. It’s just that he thinks he needs a promotion in order to prove himself marriageable. For this, the movie will need him to have a lovely and loving but ultimately reluctant fiancée (Stephanie Szostak), whose reluctance will just have to be a given. Likewise the similarly plot-propelling doltishness of Carell’s perpetually windbreakered IRS functionary and rodent hobbyist, Barry.
You may say it is both counterproductive and cruel to pick on the innocently moronic, just as it is to pick on a big-screen sitcom because its dramatic stakes seem artificial. Well, go ahead and say those things. But it’s still a little weird how “Dinner for Schmucks” goes to the trouble of so much contrivance, yet never even bothers to explain its principal schmuck’s buffoonery.
It’s not that Barry is merely obtuse. Indeed, his mental lapses sometimes suggest a developmental disability. Yet he functions at least highly enough to know his way around tax law and taxidermy. For that matter, one problem with Barry’s elaborate dead-mice dioramas as evidence of his schmuckitude is how extraordinarily beautiful and charming and well accomplished they are. You can almost imagine Wes Anderson nodding with admiration. But don’t do that, because then you’ll start imagining how much more richly Anderson might have characterized a quirkball like Barry.
As conceived by writers David Guion and Michael Handelman for director Jay Roach, he’s pretty much just a vessel for Carell. Fair enough: Here’s a man who knows how to wear a windbreaker. A man who made himself a star in large part by absorbing insult and neutralizing mean-spiritedness. So if “Dinner for Schmucks” politely declines the opportunity to take up the social critique put forth by its French predecessor, that’s to be expected — and maybe a comment on the American character in and of itself.
It does at least have “Office Space”‘s Ron Livingston on hand in a supporting role, as if to shorthand a platitude about what it thinks the corporate workplace can go do with itself. Plus: supplementary goofy hilarity from Zach Galifianakis as Barry’s boss and wife-stealer; David Williams as an eccentric Swiss billionaire; and especially Jemaine Clement as Tim’s romantic rival, a performance and bullshit artist.
Whew. You’re stuffed, yes? Let’s pass on dessert.