Dinner for Schmucks (PG-13)
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Hollywood Interquest, Tinseltown
Few moviegoing experiences are as excruciating as watching two gifted comics struggle with terrible material. Dinner for Schmucks, therefore, is like an inescapable get-together dominated by humorless palaver and juvenile games, courtesy of people who seemed amusing enough at the office. The guilty parties in this case are Steve Carell and Paul Rudd — and damn, it's hard to watch them squirm.
"Inspired by" the French film Le Diner de Cons, this comedy from Jay Roach (Austin Powers, Meet the Fockers) pits a reluctant asshole against an enthusiastic idiot. The asshole is Tim (Rudd), a white-collar ladder-climber who believes that to get promoted, he must attend his boss' regular "Dinner for Winners," secretly a competition to see who can bring the biggest moron. Tim has a good-guy conscience, though, and it is further reflected by his good-girl girlfriend, Julie (Stephanie Szostak), who leaves their apartment and, seemingly, him when he shows a glimmer of willingness to go along with the cruel gag. She doesn't even know him anymore!
Tim is ready to make an excuse to wriggle out of the commitment when he hits Barry (Carell) in a texting-while-driving accident. (Take note, kids!) And when Barry picks up a dead mouse to add to his lavish dioramas — his "mousterpieces" — and backwardly thinks he needs to bribe Tim to keep insurance out of the incident, Tim believes he's been given a sign. He invites Barry to the party the next night. Barry shows up at his apartment that eve instead and immediately begins his destruction.
Excepting bathroom gags (which scripters David Guion and Michael Handelman mercifully avoid), easily fixable misunderstandings and mouth-breathing whoopsies are about the lowest forms of movie humor. And Dinner for Schmucks is full of both. For example, when Tim allows Barry to stay the night at the apartment and leaves for work the next morning — with plenty of other mishaps in between — he grabs Barry's phone instead of his. Barry then gets details about an important business lunch that he blows with the intention of helping Tim! And on and on. Har har.
There's also Kieran, an eccentric artist (played by Jemaine Clement) whose show Julie is curating. He's shaggy-haired, egotistical and plenty weird — and was funnier when named Aldous Snow (aka Russell Brand) in Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Get Him to the Greek. The thieving is shameless. And the main laff contribution of Zach Galifianakis, who plays Barry's eccentric colleague, is that he wears a dickey. Will this PG-13 film's target audience even know what that is?
But it's up to Carell and Rudd to carry the film, and their strenuous efforts to do so are obvious. Although there are small laughs — it seems the pair's charisma can't completely be quashed — Barry is too much of a buffoon and Tim too exasperated a straight man for the premise to work.
Of course, there's a heartwarming message to the story, instigated by overheard conversations in which people either get their feelings hurt or find out how much they mean to someone. Lessons are learned! In the end, however, the true stars of the show are Barry's elaborate dioramas, which feature impeccably dressed mice in lovely first-date-like outdoor settings and, later, play out Barry's sad secret. But pretty rodents belong in comedy as much as dickeys belong on modern businessmen.