Dinner for Schmucks

Steve Carell pulls out all the stops.

Fitting in nicely with the oddball projects that have characterised Jay Roach’s career thus far – namely the Austin Powers and Meet the… series – Dinner for Schmucks is a peculiar, somewhat messy remake of Francis Veber’s 1998 French hit The Dinner Game, but with Steve Carell as the anchor, it hits more than it misses, and when it hits, it hits hard.

Tim Conrad (Paul Rudd) is an aspiring financial analyst, looking to break into the upper echelons of his company. When one his quirkier pitches actually pays off, his boss Lance Fender (Bruce Greenwood) is astounded, seriously considering him for a promotion. There is one catch, however; Tim is invited to a so-called “dinner for winners”, in which he and the other golden boys of the company go to dinner together, each inviting an eccentric guest with a special party trick, with the winning guest recieving a trophie, and the respective executive garnering all-important office bragging rights. Tim soon discovers, however, that the dinner is more of a “dinner for idiots”, in which the guests are taken to task mean-spiritedly for the amusement of the executives. Nevertheless, Tim comes across bizarre IRS clerk Barry Speck (Steve Carell) after a minor car accident and, driven by his desire to rise up the ranks of his company, decides that Barry would fit the bill perfectly. However, protests from his girlfriend Julie (Stephanie Szostak) threaten to throw a spanner in the works, and Tim himself slowly comes to realise that what they’re doing is in fact pretty sick in the head.

Though obviously in the vein of its French predecessor, the first film that Dinner for Schmucks brings to mind is in fact Jim Carrey’s dumbfoundingly misunderstood dark satire The Cable Guy. Similarly, Schmucks features a strange protagonist who is essentially abused by a more socially and economically viable person who feigns friendship in order to take advantage of the weirdo. Much like Carrey’s film, the offbeat tone here is liable to divide audiences, for though there are physical gags and there is a fair dash of broad humour, there is also a demented absurdism to a lot of Schmucks’ humour, certainly making this Roach’s most aggressively weird film yet. What it has going for it more than The Cable Guy is that Carell’s Barry is, despite being a complete doormat, actually quite sweet and likeable, whereas Carrey’s Chip Douglas was a creepy sad-sack who you felt sorry – rather than sympathetic – for.

Indeed, it is largely Carell who keeps this film afloat with a well-pitched performance that is blisfully ignorant, hilariously dim-witted and most impressively, heartfelt when it needs to be. A well-employed device – that Barry’s hobby involves stuffing mice and then creating elaborate scenes featuring them, from a romantic picnic at the park, to a recreation of The Last Supper – makes Carell’s character likeable even in moments of extreme idiocy, for rarely do we tire or become exasperated with Barry’s behaviour. Rather, Paul Rudd’s Tim does, and we find it hilarious. Rudd, meanwhile, gets the short end of the stick simply through the undemanding call of his character; it is a virtual reprise of his character from I Love You, Man, down to wanting to get engaged and progress in his job, though Rudd here plays an icier, far less likeable character, as the film’s conceit requires. Rudd plays his hand well, yet it simply pales in comparison to Carell’s show-stealing turn.

Though the film gets close to testing patience with a 114-minute runtime, a well-cast fleet of supporting actors keep the time ticking away smoothly. The most praise-worthy secondary player is undoubtedly Flight of the Conchords comic Jermaine Clement, whose turn as pretentious artist Keiran Vollard rivals Carell’s in its sheer wild insanity. Other notable cameos include brit actress Lucy Punch as Tim’s crazed stalker Darla, Zach Galifianakis as Barry’s evil mind-controlling boss, Little Britain‘s David Walliams as the Swiss entrepeuner that Tim is trying to secure, puppet maestro Jeff Dunham as one of the nutty party guests, and Ron Livingstone as one of the sleazy executives, as though playing the more Hellish path that his Office Space character might have taken had he not been so enlightened. Bruce Greenwood is also wonderfully slimy in the sort of stuffed shirt role he can knock out in his sleep.

Given the misanthropic nature of the film’s premise, it would have been a synch for the film itself to show little emotional regard to its characters. Thankfully, Carell grounds the film well, chanelling the angst of his lonely, jilted character in a way people likely haven’t seen from him before. Once we believe the genuine loneliness of Barry, it isn’t hard for us to ultimately sympathise – albeit with a few reservations – with Tim, who is desperate to settle down and is ultimately a decent, if misguided and idiotic guy. Their common ground – that they are both idiots in different ways – makes for a rousing pairing, never becoming too bogged down in serious drama, and keeping the strangeness knob cranked up to eleven.

As a comedy of embarassing errors, Schmucks is diverting more through its individuality than its outright hilarity. Had it gone further and not settled for the laziest ending possible, this could have been something more meaningful and emotional, for it sustains surprisingly well over almost two hours, thanks largely to Carell, whose role here is his most challenging to date. Truly, though, it is also going to be his most divisive.

Dinner for Schmucks goes on general UK cinema release on Friday, September 3rd.


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