Friday, January 7, 2011

Dinner for Schmucks Movie Review: Never Go Full Retard

Paul Rudd meets Steve Carell with his mouse Last Supper

Dinner for Schmucks is what happens when middlebrow Hollywood talent take a perfectly respectable French comedy of errors and simmer it down to a lumpy reduction. Screenwriters David Guion and Michael Handelman, along with director Jay Roach (the Austin Powers trilogy), have altered Francis Veber’s The Dinner Game, a sophisticated and light farce, to a lowbrow ramshackle disaster comedy.

The premise of this mostly plot-faithful rendition is a regular dinner gathering at which the invited guests are meant to bring the biggest idiot they can find. In the American version, Tim (perennial broad comedy straight man Paul Rudd) is desperate for a big promotion at work. Part of impressing the boss (Bruce Greenwood) and other company bigwigs (including Ron Livingston) is nabbing a hilarious catch for the next dinner party. He accidentally comes across Barry (Steve Carell), a well-meaning but completely clueless IRS agent with a penchant for taxidermy and creating elaborate dioramas using dead mice.

In the lead-up to the dinner, Barry manages to make a complete debacle of Tim’s life by giving out his address to an old flame who stalks him online, making his girlfriend, Julie (Stephanie Szostak), believe he’s cheating, and setting the wheels in motion for a full tax audit after a visit to Barry’s equally moronic boss played by Zach Galifianakis, who may be falling into the trap (after his tremendous comedic performance in The Hangover) of thinking that he has to keep mugging for the camera to be funny.

Barry is as doltish as Harry and Lloyd in the Farrelly brothers’ Dumb and Dumber. He’s incapable of taking a hint even when it’s spelled out in front of his face. Remember when Lloyd is rebuffed by the woman of his dreams when she tells him his chances with her are about one in a million and he responds, “So you’re telling me I have a chance?” Barry is kind of like that – again…and again…and again. It would be utterly painful to watch is Carell weren’t so damn good at selling it. He plays the idiot to perfection and in a comedy where just about every joke has a punch line you can see coming almost before the setup, he retains the only iota of unpredictability and occasional hilarity.

Actually this movie might have been better off the in the hands of Peter and Bobby Farrelly, who are masterful at creating comedy from chaos. Roach’s approach seems to be to slam the audience with the most outrageous scenarios he can imagine in the hopes that something will be funny. The final dinner scene involves such an unbelievable confluence of sight gags and absurdity I was surprised not to see a kitchen sink fall through the ceiling.

I’m beginning to believe that Roach is much better suited to drama (the two he’s directed – Mystery, Alaska and the HBO movie Recount – are both respectable). Directing comedy requires a high wire act involving simultaneous fire juggling and sword swallowing – misstep even a little and you can fall, get burned, or simply die. His directorial control over the big comic set pieces resembles the jarringly absurd, completely unfunny bits of Meet the Fockers more than the tightly controlled Meet the Parents.

Ridiculous scenarios may be sufficient to generate laughs, but it’s not enough to hold onto your audience. For that you need a story that makes sense and characters who at least resemble real people. As much as Carell heroically tries to make Barry believable, you simply can’t accept that there’s anyone in the world not suffering from severe mental retardation who could possibly exhibit his level of stupidity. But then, only the Farrelly brothers have ever successfully used the mentally handicapped for comedy.


  1. I don't believe the Farrelly brothers use people with mental retardation for comedy. It's to teach a lesson which obviously you have missed by using the term full retard. The Farrelly brothers wouldn't give you the time of day.

  2. When I insult people, I have the courage to sign my name.

    I have not missed anything. You have not given a careful reading of my review, particularly the last line: "only the Farrelly brothers have ever successfully used the mentally handicapped for comedy." This is not the same as saying they "have successfully skewere/made fun of the mentally handicapped." I am well aware of the way the Farrelly brothers used people with handicaps in their films, but regardless of their good intentions, they are using them in the film and they do so successfully. It's a tricky balance to pull off, but they do it.

    The other part you seem to have missed is that "Full Retard" is a reference to the Robert Downey, Jr, speech in "Tropic Thunder" which, by the way, is also not making fun of retarded people, but Hollywood actors' interpretations of people with mental retardation.