Dinner for Schmucks: movie review

( PG-13 ) ( Monitor Movie Guide )

'Dinner for Schmucks': Paul Rudd and Steve Carell star in a remake of the French farce 'The Dinner Game.'

Merie Weismiller Wallace/Paramount Pictures/AP
Steve Carell, left, and Paul Rudd are shown in a scene from the movie 'Dinner for Schmucks.'

In the ho-hum comedy “Dinner for Schmucks,” the odd couple pairing of Steve Carell and Paul Rudd is supposed to be an instant laugh riot – a Laurel and Hardy matchup for our time.

True, they look funny together. Rudd is so blandly clean-cut that just about anybody playing opposite him would seem like an oddball. Just in case, Carell has been outfitted with a mangy hairpiece and buckteeth and wears a windbreaker even indoors. But once we get over the visual contrast between these two, there’s very little else to fall back on.

Rudd’s Tim is an ambitious low-level financial analyst at a cutthroat private-equity firm in Los Angeles. He lives beyond his means, drives a Porsche, and has a sweet girlfriend, Julie (Stephanie Szostak), who loves him but isn’t quite ready to settle down.

When Tim’s boss, Lance Fender (Bruce Greenwood), presents him with a chance to zoom up the corporate ladder, he jumps at the opportunity.

A new office and a bigger paycheck are Tim’s if he takes part in a cruel ritual put on by Lance for the delectation of his fellow fat cats. Each guest invited to Lance’s mansion for a dinner party must bring with them an “idiot” – the more clueless and hapless the better. The bearer of the biggest idiot wins the boss’s favor.

(Just for the record, and because the title of this film has stirred up some controversy, it should be pointed out that an idiot is not the same thing as a schmuck, a derogatory Yiddish term for, to be polite about it, “a jerk.” The point, I suppose, is that the fat cats here are the real schmucks, and not the “idiots.” End of language lesson.)

Tim’s guest, who accidentally enters his life when Tim almost runs him down with his car, is Carell’s Barry Speck, a tax man and amateur taxidermist whose hobby is dressing up dead mice in tiny outfits and arranging them in cute tableaux. (The only graceful note in the movie is the opening credits, when we see some of Barry’s miniaturist handiwork in progress.) Pretty soon Barry, in all his bucktoothed innocence, is making a muck of Tim’s job and marriage prospects.

Director Jay Roach and his screenwriters have loosely adapted the so-so 1998 Francis Veber French comedy “The Dinner Game.” Veber’s comic conceit, which stopped short of actually showing the dinner, doesn’t really cross the Atlantic intact. For one thing, the notion of sadistic rich people lording it over middle-class morons isn’t exactly a sidesplitter. (Interestingly, no wealthy “idiots” are brought to the dinner.) Class-oriented comedy has never been a big staple of American movies.

Perhaps in recognition of this fact, the filmmakers play down the nastier aspects of their material. Instead of truly being a go-getter, for example, Tim is only interested in advancement in order to win the glowing heart of his girlfriend – who, of course, cares nothing for luxury. And Barry, who is made an object of ridicule not only by the other characters in the movie but also by the filmmakers, turns out to be a sweet-souled saint. Just in case we felt bad about laughing at him.

The characters who come off best in “Dinner for Schmucks” are those dead mice. Grade: C- (Rated PG-13 for sequences of crude and sexual content, some partial nudity and language.)

Other movies Steve Carell stars in:

'Despicable Me'

'Date Night'

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