In the grand scheme of things, we should have known it wouldn’t be so long after Breakfast of Champions that we’d be having Dinner for Schmucks. Steve Carell and Paul Rudd star in this American remake of the French film (of a French play) about a guy who climbs the corporate ladder by competing to supply a dinner party with its most pathetic guest. Can you guess who plays who?
For those who think Steve Carell will disappear with his character on “The Office,” never fear: The boyish leading man is more Carell than ever in this remake.
It’s not that Rudd’s Tim, a mild-mannered private-equity analyst, necessarily enjoys publicly humiliating unsuspecting idiots (“That’s messed up,” he says more than once), or that he’s overwhelmed by his own careerist drive. It’s that he thinks he needs a promotion in order to prove himself marriageable. For this, the movie requires him to have a lovely and loving, but ultimately reluctant fiancée (Stephanie Szostak), whose reluctance has to be a given. Just like the similarly plot-propelling doltishness of Carell’s toothy, perpetually windbreakered IRS functionary and rodent hobbyist, Barry.
You may say it’s counterproductive and cruel to pick on innocent morons, just as it is to pick on a big-screen sitcom because its dramatic stakes seem artificial. But it’s a little weird how Dinner for Schmucks never even bothers to explain its principal schmuck’s buffoonery. It’s not that Barry is merely obtuse. Indeed, his mental lapses sometimes suggest a developmental disability. Yet he functions at least highly enough to know his way around tax law and taxidermy.
For that matter, one problem with Barry’s elaborate dead-mice dioramas as evidence of his schmuckitude is how extraordinarily beautiful and charming they are. You can almost imagine Wes Anderson nodding with admiration. But don’t do that, because then you’ll start imagining how much more richly Anderson might have characterized a quirkball like Barry.
As conceived by writers David Guion and Michael Handelman for director Jay Roach, he’s pretty much just a vessel for Carell. Fair enough: Carell made himself a star by absorbing insult and neutralizing mean-spiritedness. So if Dinner for Schmucks politely declines the opportunity take up the social critique put forth by its French predecessor, that’s to be expected—and may be a comment on the American character in and of itself.
It does at least have Office Space’s Ron Livingston on hand in a supporting role, as if to shorthand what it thinks the corporate workplace can go do with itself. Plus: supplementary goofy hilarity from Zach Galifianakis as Barry’s boss and wife-stealer; David Williams as an eccentric Swiss billionaire; and especially Jemaine Clement as Tim’s romantic rival, a performance and bullshit artist.
Whew, that’s filling. Let’s pass on dessert.