'Dinner for Schmucks' sometimes funny, sometimes not

Paul Rudd (left) as Tim and Steve Carell as Barry are mismatched buddies in the movie, adapted from Francis Veber's 1998 French farce, "The Dinner Game."
Paul Rudd (left) as Tim and Steve Carell as Barry are mismatched buddies in the movie, adapted from Francis Veber's 1998 French farce, "The Dinner Game."
Posted: July 30, 2010

The opening-titles sequence of Dinner for Schmucks offers a series of curious tableaux: meticulously constructed dioramas of two taxidermized mice, dressed up like people, in various stages of courtship. A human hand can be seen in several of the shots, delicately applying paint, or fixing an article of clothing on the cute, but decidedly dead, rodents.

Whoever that hand belongs to has got to be weird.

And indeed, as we soon learn, he is. Barry - played by Steve Carell with a nerdy overbite and, well, a mousy mien - is an IRS employee who builds elaborate miniature scenes in his spare time. And since he lives alone and has few friends, there's lots of time to spare.

And then one fateful day, Barry bumps into Tim (Paul Rudd) - or, more accurately, Tim runs into Barry with his Porsche. A mid-level finance exec with designs on a bigger paycheck and a corner office, Tim has just been invited to a dinner party hosted by his boss. It's a dinner with a theme: each guest must bring along someone mockable - a fool, a jerk, a deluded twit. The guest with the biggest buffoon wins.

Et voilĂ , Barry - like a gift from the gods.

Adapted from Francis Veber's 1998 French farce, The Dinner Game, the sometimes very funny, sometimes not Dinner for Schmucks takes this squirmy conceit - the original was a more sour and cynical affair - and turns it into a mismatched buddies, life-lesson comedy.

Jay Roach (the Austin Powers movies, Meet the Parents, Meet the Fokkers) has cast his picture with standout comic talents: Jemaine Clement as a preening modern-day Dionysian art world star; Zach Galifianakis as Barry's IRS superior, and a man who believes he has psychic powers; Lucy Punch as Tim's stalker ex; and Kristen Schaal as Tim's blunt, bossy secretary.

As it turns out, most of Dinner for Schmucks transpires in the time leading up to the actual soiree, as Barry, both terribly naive and a terrible pest, worms his way into Tim's life. Rudd, of course, is the straight man in all this: his Tim is smart and likable up to a point, but with the potential to turn into soulless yuppie scum.

His girlfriend, Julie (Stephanie Szostak), a gallerist with a soft Gallic accent, senses this, and is rightly offended by the idea behind the dinner. Watching Rudd's Tim try to rationalize his way around the moral dilemmas that the invitation presents produces some of the film's most charged comedic scenes. And Barry's blundering efforts to help Tim patch things up with Julie leads to entertainingly excruciating mistaken-identity silliness. Enter the tall and terrifying Ms. Punch.

Dinner for Schmucks suffers in sections where the improv-y riffing calls attention to itself. And the dinner, alas, is anticlimactic. Roach and his writers opt for a cinematic variation of Raymond Chandler's famous counsel: "When in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand." Instead of a gun, however, it's a guest who starts a fire.

Dinner for Schmucks goes up in flames. Amusingly, perhaps - but creatively, too.


Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at www.philly.com/philly/blogs/onmovies.

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