Dinner for Schmucks: Should We Be Laughing?

Steve Carell and Paul Rudd ought to be a dynamic duo

During the screening of Dinner for Schmucks (PG-13), I was surrounded by uncontrollable laughter. Spasmodic laughter so great that it doubled over the flip-flop-wearing guys in front of me and brought them slamming back into their seats. Laughter that, I swear, actually elicited a high-five or two. Yet, there I sat — an occasional smile, an occasional laugh (more the equivalent of a golf clap) — without any guffaw in me. Seriously, was I missing something?

Dinner for Schmucks (based on the French film Les Diner de Cons) stars Paul Rudd as Tim, a corporate man looking to move up in his company. To snag a promotion he must find a complete loser to bring along to a company dinner. If he chooses well and his guest is selected as the loserest loser of them all, the job is his. So when he meets the hapless simpleton Barry, played by Steve Carell, he is sure he’ll win. What could beat a taxidermist who creates “mouse-terpieces” from stuffed mice? But, of course, the meanness of this dinner begins to weigh on Tim’s mind and the relationship with his girlfriend. And despite the fact that Barry brings nothing but pain, humiliation, and IRS audits, Tim can’t help from starting to like him.[SIGNUP]

It’s a wicked premise without any wickedness. Instead of exploring the acidic cruelty of the conceit or reveling in the absolute schadenfreude, the movie tries to be a more palatable comedy. (Think The 40-Year-Old Virgin rather than In the Company of Men.) And this is the inherent problem. The audience is supposed to feel disgust at the Dinner for Losers. You are meant to feel sympathy (perhaps empathy) for these colorful and odd characters and anger at their ridicule. Yet what do the filmmakers expect from you in this glossy comedy? Well, to laugh at the stupidity of these losers, of course. You laugh when the Forrest Gump-like Barry watches his ex-wife drive off with another man. You laugh when Barry realizes Tim isn’t actually his friend. You laugh when Barry admits he’s happiest with the dead mice because they do not lie.

Hilarious, no?

Carell and Rudd are both immensely talented and charismatic comedic actors. Both are able to walk that fine line between comedy and unbearable discomfort. But in Dinner for Schmucks they are exactly like the taxidermied mice in Barry’s mouse-terpieces: they appear alive, but when you look closer you see all the wire holding them together. You see Rudd trapped as an average Joe (or Job) whose constant screen presence is a reaction shot. You watch Carell stuck with a character that is either an idiot or mentally challenged. A caricature that’s taken from scene to scene and never given any development. (Wouldn’t it be nice if you actually learned something more about this main character? Perhaps even a little back-story?) You also get extraneous characters, like Flight of the Conchord’s Jermaine Clement and The Hangover’s Zach Galifianakis, who exist only to increase the chuckle quotient.

Plain and simple, some will be able to get over the premise’s contradiction and find much humor. Others will not. But if we are expected to laugh at these characters, the jokes should at least be funny … and not based on the embarrassment of its players.

Or the filmmakers should have completely embraced its pure wicked nature. But I’m probably still missing something. (In theaters.)

My Grade: C-