There are moments in Jay Roach’s Dinner for Schmucks that elicit deep pity. Not for the titular schmucks, mind you, but for the actors themselves. I know Steve Carell, Paul Rudd, and Jemaine Clement can be funny. Hell, Zach Galifianakis makes me laugh simply by staring at the camera. But with a cast of comedic heavyweights, long periods of silence are all the more unbearable. The problem is the script. Inspired by The Dinner Game, a popular French comedy, screenwriters David Guion and Michael Handelman drained the remake of wit or any semblance to human behavior. The jokes, such as they are, would be embarrassing even in a third-rate sitcom. Comedy writers should take heed – Dinner for Schmucks is a master-class on easily-avoidable mistakes.
Paul Rudd plays Tim, a mid-level businessman who longs for the big leagues. When Tim speaks out of turn, the company bigwig (Bruce Greenwood) takes notice. Tim gets his shot, but before the promotion, he must partake in a bizarre hazing ritual. You see, the bigwig has a monthly dinner in which he and other Yes-Men invite an idiot as their guest. Throughout dinner, the businessmen mock the idiots, and there’s even a prize for inviting the “best” one (laughing yet?). Desperate for a moron, Tim meets Barry, a hapless IRS employee whose hobby is creative taxidermy. Barry seems like a perfect dinner companion, at least until his thoughtless actions put Tim’s personal/professional life in turmoil. Tim’s girlfriend (Stephanie Szostak) leaves after a careless mistake, and avant-garde artist Kieran (Jemaine Clement) is there to pick up the pieces. In a last-ditch effort to win Julie back, Barry enlists the help of his boss Therman (Zach Galifianakis), a bizarre man who thinks he’s capable of mind control. Amidst several crises, Barry and Tim still find their way to dinner, where hijinks get zanier by the minute.
There’s nothing wrong with a well-done farce, but because Dinner for Schmucks focuses on incident instead of character, nearly every joke falls flat. A telling moment is Barry’s interaction with Darla (Lucy Punch), a creepy stalker who somehow arrives at Tim’s apartment. Rather than think about how two quirky characters would behave, Guion and Handelman take the easy route by having them destroy the furniture. In scene after unfunny scene, the screenwriters ratchet the mayhem and jettison the plausibility. Without any semblance of character development, actors are given little to do other than ape for the camera. This is never truer than with Galifianakis – his characters’ imaginary mind bullets are distraction from an otherwise finely-honed persona. Carell is another egregious offender – his tactless behavior took me right out of the movie. Barry’s bad decisions do little more than drive the plot forward, and his taxidermy habit strikes a dull middle-ground between cute and creepy. Rudd sleepwalks through this role – even his exasperated moments are devoid of energy. As Kieran, Jemaine Clement is the lone diamond in the rough. Sure, the narcissistic artist is a familiar comic role, but Clement’s quiet confidence is chuckle-inducing, especially as his lines get increasingly pretentious.
Carell and Rudd were great in Anchorman, a movie in which off-the-wall silliness is the prevailing tone. Whereas Anchorman’s goofiness transcended the need for developed characters, Dinner for Schmucks tries to have realistic people alongside outlandish ones. It can’t decide whether it wants to be like Anchorman or something more plausible like The 40 Year Old Virgin, and by trying to possess characteristics of both, if fails to achieve either. The actors in this movie have been in the best comedies of the past decade. Roach nonetheless ignores their strengths, and is instead content to have a woman do a protracted, awkward impression of a boiling lobster. Midway through the titular meal, the movie made me feel like I was a fellow guest: hopelessly stuck, and desperate to leave.