Making a comedy centered entirely around a dinner party isn’t easy. The makers of Clue pulled it off brilliantly but almost no one else has. It’s hard to fill 90 minutes with people hanging around, eating, talking, and drinking and make it consistently funny. It’s complicated. It takes real talent and yet when it works, it’s legendary. So Dinner for Schmucks, in spite of a title which might suggest otherwise, doesn’t try. It should probably have been titled “A Bunch Of Idiots Ruin Some Guys Life And Then They Eat”. But it’s easy to see why that might be too long. Schmucks avoids the perils of making a dinner party movie entirely by not being a dinner party movie at all. Instead it opts for the easiest route possible and tells the story of some idiots being stupid while a normal guy suffers. This is the kind of comedy Hollywood makes frequently and Dinner for Schmucks pulls it off well enough. Yet it’s with a wistful sort of what might have been disappointment that I note the movie never really takes off until it finally gets to that dinner party, a dinner party which is sadly, barely a footnote in an otherwise long and rambling comedy about nothing.
The biggest disappointment here is the way Schmucks uses Paul Rudd, which is to say it doesn’t use him at all. Instead Rudd, a tremendous comedic talent, is asked to stand there looking bored while people around him do things that are funny. It’s as if Rudd is in a different movie, a French romantic comedy starting Audrey Tautou perhaps, while everyone else in the film mimicks an Austin Powers movie. Rudd is the generically named “Tim”, one of those boring stockbroker types who has a cute girlfriend, lives beyond his means, and wants a promotion. To get his promotion, his boss tells him he’ll have to attend their monthly executive dinner. There’s a catch: To attend he must bring an idiot with him and whoever brings the biggest idiot, wins.
Moments later Tim hits just such an idiot with his car. This idiot is Barry, played by Steve Carell as if he’s the third member of Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniel’s Dumb & Dumber duo. But Steve Carell is not Jim Carrey and his great strength as an actor is in the way he convincingly plays the sympathetic everyman. Carell’s too talented to blow it even when he’s miscast, but he ends up bringing a lot of that everyman sympathy to a character who is absolutely not an everyman and would probably be funnier if he didn’t have our sympathy. Barry should probably have been played by Zach Galifianakis, who incidentally shows up later in the movie and runs away with the whole thing.
So Tim hits Barry with his car, discovers Barry’s a pretty weird guy with a habit of dressing dead mice up in miniature outfits, and invites him to the dinner party. Then for no reason at all, Barry won’t go away. Barry starts following Tim around everywhere, ends up at Tim’s house and gradually begins to ruin his life with the kind of buffoonery that only happens in movies. And the script goes on like that, as it starts asking us to care about Tim’s relationship with his girlfriend (we don’t) and introduces characters which have nothing at all to do with the Schmuck dinner that’s supposed to serve as the film’s big finale. Occasionally we’re rewarded for sticking with all this tedious plodding. When Jemaine Clement shows up as an out of his mind artist bent on stealing Tim’s girlfriend, he turns every scene he’s part of into comedic gold.
But there’s never enough Zach Galifianakis or Jemaine Clement and the movie never seems interested in being anything other than another one of those been there, done that buddy comedies in which a straight man is forced to hang out with a total dufus. Dinner for Schmucks has the kind of premise that could have made it well above average, but it takes that premise and then does everything it can to make it turn out as average and infinitely forgettable as possible. It succeeds. By the time Dinner for Schmucks gets around to serving the desert, you’ll be more than ready for the check.