There’s only one thing that makes Dinner for Schmucks work at all, and that one thing is star Steve Carell. A fellow critic of mine, Cal Doe, perfectly summarizes the great luck that the movie found in its star. He says, “Carell struck the right balance between childlike innocence and full-on obnoxiousness which was so integral to making the character work.”
Indeed, it’s a tightrope walk. Which is a strange thing to be saying, given that the movie is so utterly lifeless otherwise. The story is about a man named Tim (Rudd), who is only painted in shades of gray. Where other movies might have a secondary character who serves as the comic relief alone, Tim serves as the straight man alone. If he has a personality outside of being blandly nice but determined, it’s never shown. His entire role in the film amounts to chasing Carell around and being alternately angry or embarrassed. Oh sure, he has a relationship with a woman, but there’s so little here as well – she exists for no other reason than to misinterpret things and become angry – there is no real relationship.
Tim is invited by his boss and the boss’ sadistic cronies to a dinner party wherein each guest brings along somebody that they find somehow remarkable; that is, somebody who is a total idiot. Hence, Tim finds Barry (Carell) and secures him for the party. Although Tim thinks of bringing Barry to dinner as a viable alternative to losing his job, it soon becomes clear that the man is a walking catastrophe. Carell is basically playing a one-man show of Dumb & Dumber, while Rudd is doing his best call-back to director Jay Roach’s still bleeding hit Meet the Parents.
It would be easy to think of the movie as mean-spirited, and I guess it is. Tim is positioned as a good man who was put into a delicate position and is trying not to hurt anybody’s feelings. This was a mistake, I think, because it would be much easier to laugh at the character’s pain if he were colored with darker strokes. Instead, he barely makes an impression and the series of scrapes that the duo of Tim and Barry get themselves into remains far from memorable. There’s only one scene that I can recall which I would call really strong – a moment where Tim is awkwardly forced into proposing to a woman who has been stalking him – but again, the scene would work just as well (if not better) if we delighted in Tim’s squirming, rather than simply enduring the moment.
A lot of the humor of the movie isn’t as cute as it thinks it is. For instance, there’s a scene where Barry brags about his sunny disposition, saying, “I guess you could say I’m an eternal optometrist.” At another point, he misunderstands the lyric to a John Lennon song. It’s one thing for Barry to be oblivious to the fact that he is being made fun of by almost everybody around him, but when the jokes are as pathetic as those, it’s not just the characters who are idiots – it’s the writers. There’s a shocking line in Roger Ebert’s review of the film when he begins to describe the titular dinner. Of the guests, Ebert says, “To describe them would be to give away their jokes, and one of the pleasures of the movie is having each one appear.” Really? Why such high praise from Ebert for admittedly one-joke characters? They might as well just have funny names and leave it at that, because about the same level of humor would have been achieved.
So Carell saves it all by being likeable, which flies directly in the face of a movie that is so unlikeable on its own. Carell’s Barry is charming, even if he is a disaster, and there are hints that he understands his own limitations but lives in bliss nonetheless (I kind of wish that these hints would have been further elaborated upon). It’s tired as hell, but when Tim feels pangs of remorse near the end of the film because of the way that Barry’s been treated, it’s not totally impossible to understand. It’s like Tim’s been given custody of a rambunctious child and he feels protective of him, even though the kid’s a pain.
The year 2010 saw the release of the great comedy The Other Guys and I am trying to think about what made that movie work while this one flounders so much. I think it’s because a lot of the jokes in that film were actual jokes, with set-up and delivery, with twists on your expectations. The best this movie can provide is mispronunciation of the word ‘optimist’ and the inclusion of that laff riot Zach Galifianakis. This movie has so little to offer, and what little that does work is but the ghost of stronger scenes in better movies. In short, Dinner for Schmucks sucks.