Dinner for Schmucks is based on the 1998 French comedy Le Diner de Cons, which was nominated for six Cesar awards (the French Oscar, basically) and won three. The American remake was directed by Jay Roach who, like him or not, certainly knows how to helm a successful comedy. The cast includes some of the biggest names in comedy today (Paul Rudd, Steve Carell, Zach Galifianakis) alongside tons of talented supporting players and interesting eccentrics (Flight of the Conchords' Jemaine Clement, The IT Crowd's Chris O'Dowd). With a mix like that, how could you go wrong? Quite a lot of ways, it turns out. Tim (Paul Rudd) is a mid-level financial exec at his firm, showing promise but still waiting for the lucky break he needs to rise to the next level. That break comes when he spots an opportunity to possibly snag the business of a wealthy Swede by using, of all things, a surplus of novelty lamps. That moxie earns him an invite to the regular "dinner for winners" hosted by Tim's boss (Bruce Greenwood). The goal of the dinner is for each attendee to bring along the most idiotic person they can find as their guest. Tim's girlfriend is horrified by the idea, but Tim knows that the future of his career is on the line. Then fate drops just such an idiot onto the hood of his car: IRS employee Barry Speck (Steve Carell), who, amongst other things, spends his free time arranging taxidermied mice into elaborate dioramas. Tim knows he's got a "winner" for the party. Now he just has to decide if he's willing to sacrifice what little dignity Barry has in order to advance his own career.
There are two different directions Dinner for Schmucks could take Barry after this basic set up. It could go the straight-up black comedy route and have Barry become an instrument of unshakable karmic vengeance who ruins Tim's life as punishment for trying to exploit an innocent. In this case, Barry's actions don't really have to be logical or reasonable, because he's as much a force of nature as he is a foil for Tim. On the other hand, you could go more of a Planes, Trains & Automobiles route and have Barry be a luckless but lovable eccentric whom Tim soon comes to appreciate and respect. If that's the case, you have to be careful what sort of chaos you have Barry cause for Tim, because you never want Barry to become unsympathetic. Annoying, sure, but never unsympathetic.
Unfortunately, Dinner for Schmucks tries to find a middle ground between these two extremes and fails at both. The script tries desperately to inject that all-important quality of "heart" and make us come to love Barry, but it does so in such a calculated way -- "Oh, the movie's almost over, time for us to reveal a private secret that humanizes Barry and makes Tim feel horrible." By the time they play that card, Tim has already suffered so much collateral damage that it's hard to believe he wouldn't have just ditched Barry and looked for a less toxic crazy person to invite to dinner. Barry repeatedly does things that simply don't make sense even when viewed through the lens of social maladjustment, so ultimately I don't care when we eventually find out his big, humanizing secret...he's still kind of an asshole.
Dinner for Schmucks also downplays the one element that is potentially the funniest and most interesting: the actual dinner. Given how much that strange gathering monopolized all the trailers and marketing for the movie, it's surprising that it doesn't actually occur until the final half-hour or so of the 114-minute run time. (On a related note, why the hell is this movie almost two hours long?) Instead, we get a convoluted, not particularly interesting plot involving Tim and Barry teaming up to find out if Tim's girlfriend Julie is cheating on him with Jemaine Clement's goat-man artist. Given that Julie exists in this film mainly to get a couple of plot points moving, it's hard to have any investment in her relationship with Tim -- certainly not enough to want to spend 90 minutes watching it get sorted out. By the time we arrive at the actual dinner, Schmucks does deliver some of its better material, but it's too little, far too late. The brain battle between Carell and Galifianakis is fun, but goes on for too long. The real highlight is Chris O'Dowd's blind swordsman, a silly gag that he embraces with gusto. Fun note: while watching O'Dowd's performance, I kept imagining he was actually his IT Crowd character and that his appearance here was the end of some long, convoluted scheme that had gone horribly wrong. This turned out to be a bad idea, because then I kept wanting to turn off the disc and watch IT Crowd instead.
Even if Dinner for Schmucks avoided all these problems, it fails at the most fundamental duty of the comedy: most of the time, it simply isn't funny. It's deeply weird, and there is some fun to be had at seeing just what depths of quirk it can plumb, but the times I actually laughed at this movie can be counted on one hand. And most of those involved the blind swordsman.
Seriously, where are my IT Crowd DVDs anyway? After the film itself, I didn't have high hopes for the extras. After all, the only thing less enjoyable than a bad movie is watching people talk about how much fun it was to make a bad movie. And there is plenty of that on display here in the disc's extras, mostly made up of short featurettes. Fortunately, there are also a couple of pleasant surprises.
"The Biggest Schmucks in the World" focuses on the cast, highlighting the smorgasbord of comedic talent assembled for the film. Unfortunately, this just throws the disappointing film itself into even starker relief. With this many funny people in it, this movie really has no excuse for being unfunny. "Meet the Winners" focuses on some of the lesser-known guests at the dinner party and keeps everything in character, with the "winners" introducing themselves and explaining their unique "gifts." It's a motley array of beard aficionados, pet mediums, and -- God bless him -- blind sword masters. You can tell this probably wasn't scripted, so it's just letting the actors riff and play with their roles, which is actually pretty entertaining. Especially since, at three minutes long, it doesn't wear out its welcome.
The deleted scenes and the "Schmuck Ups" blooper reel are standard issue, and honestly the gag reel is kind of a letdown given the people involved. But then things get weird. "Paul and Steve: The Decision" is, as near as I can tell, a segment filmed for ESPNs "ESPY" awards. Poking fun at an ESPN special centering around LeBron James switching teams to the Miami Heat, "The Decision" features Paul interviewing Steve about a very important decision he's made. It's like a joust between two talented straight-men, each refusing to give any ground, but it does go on a little too long.
The gem of the set is a featurette called "The Men Behind the Mousterpieces," which focuses on the Chiodo brothers: Stephen, Charlie, and Edward. They were the model and props designers who created all of Barry's mouse dioramas, and it's a fascinating look into all the work and detail that went into that element of the movie. Even better, it also touches on their work on movies like Team America: World Police. It's a cool little look at three guys most of us have probably never heard of, but whose work we've almost certainly encountered over the years. I wouldn't recommend renting the movie just to watch the featurette, but if you do rent the movie, don't pass this segment up.
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