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Michael Scott, the beloved (and hated) manager of Dunder Mifflin Paper Company, has a new competitor for most uncomfortable character, Barry. The common denominator between both characters, Steve Carell plays ‘em both. Alongside co-star Paul Rudd – who’s no stranger to the awkward with his exhaustingly nerve-wrenching performance in “I Love You, Man” – “Dinner for Schmucks” is a half-mustered comedy, though the situational humor just might make you sink into your seat or cover your eyes.
Based on the French film, “The Dinner Game”, director Jay Roach (“Meet the Fockers”) explores the nastier side of cultural hierarchies. From the get go, divisions are made between the 6th and 7th floor of Tim’s (Rudd) office life. But when opportunity knocks, Tim discovers that moving upstairs has one small hitch, attending a dinner that his boss, Lance Fender (Bruce Greenwood), hosts every month. Ironically called a “dinner for winners,” all attendees must bring a so-called ‘idiot’ with them. Whoever brings the most ‘pathetic person, wins.
Tim decides against the dinner until he meets Barry (Carell) in a chance encounter. With an inability to detect sarcasm and a disturbing addiction to mouse taxidermy, Tim decides to invite Barry — a task that causes him two days of pain and discomfort. The game is set and we must spend the movie learning who the schmuck really is, the business CEO or the “winner” at the dinner table.
Like “What About Bob?” and “Meet the Parents”, this kind of humor isn’t for everyone. I found myself twice as uncomfortable as viewing any episode of “The Office”, but not laughing nearly as much. This is a film about slimy people who mock, not the less financially fortunate, but the socially margined. The class struggle of “Dinner for Schmucks” focuses on societal division based on taste as defined by the social elite. It’s clear there’s a rich message here but the jokes aren’t near the caliber they should be to help us really see how distraught such elitism gets. A film like this should hit closer to home, making the audience see themselves on screen — especially those who are guilty of such indecent behavior. The beauty of film is its ability to externalize internal struggles, and “Dinner with Schmucks” doesn’t go deep enough into the awfulness of the human mind.
Paul Rudd and Steve Carell join ranks for the third time, coming off two fantastic team-ups in “Anchorman” and “The 40 Year Old Virgin”. Judd Apatow was the unifying factor for both those films and he is severely missed here. The pace is slow and the payoff is superficial. Rather than bust-your-side laughing, Rudd and Carell’s character chemistry dwells in chuckles. I will say, the many uses of mice in taxidermy is the best part of the film.
Hats off to Jemaine Clement, who loosely plays himself in “Flight of the Concords”, for his role as eccentric artist, Kieran. I never would’ve considered dressing up like a faun as a source of artistic inspiration when trying to explore the animal self. Pan would be proud. Fellow “Concordian” Stephanie Szostak also steps it up as Tim’s office manager Julia. Though a fresh face, she’s sure to be typecast as the monotone asexual friend who says what other people think.
In the past, these films tend to cop out with an ugly duckling moral. Underneath the nerdy exterior lies a smoking hot babe in “She’s All That”, and hard work pays off in “The Pursuit of Happyness”. While “Dinner for Schmucks” scorns those it attempts to elevate, at least it doesn’t give our leading schmuck a personality makeover. He’s OK the way he is. We’re pushed to the extreme as we consider what it really means to accept people when they go against everything we consider “normal.”
“Dinner for Schmucks” is one of the funnier films of the year, but it should have been funnier still. It’s not as slow as Carell’s “Date Night”, but it’s not as genius as Rudd’s “Role Models” either.
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