Tuesday, August 3, 2010


“Austin Powers” director Jay Roach serves up a less than appetizing rehash of French director Francis Veber’s 1998 comic masterpiece “The Dinner Game.” “Dinner for Schmucks” (* out of ****) casts sympathetic Paul Rudd cast as the straight man, while funnyman Steve Carell hams it up as a dim-witted idiot. Rudd and Carell have now co-starred in three comedies. Previously, they appeared together in “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy.” No, “Dinner for Schmucks” isn’t half as hilarious as either “40-Year-Old Virgin” or “Anchorman.” The premise of this half-baked hokum is that our hero’s arrogant boss throws a once-a-month dinner party where his best and brightest employees compete to see who can bring the dumbest dinner guest. Typically, the dinner guests are such incredible imbeciles that they don’t realize that they are being roasted instead of toasted. Essentially, these cold-blooded bigwigs at a private equity firm that cuts up other firms and sells off their assets need something for a good laugh.

Unfortunately, “Dinner for Schmucks” comes up short on yucks. This politically incorrect plate of pabulum concerns an ambitious, young analyst who is prepared to sell his soul to the Philistines so he can realize his dreams, specifically marrying his girlfriend. Along the way, our hero realizes the error of ridiculing idiots so that he can attain his dreams. Long before he grasps what he has done, the humor in “Dinner for Schmucks” has lost its seasoning. The original French comedy concluded before the eponymous dinner. “Dinner for Schmucks,” however, goes in for a seven course meal and wears out its welcome.
Presumably, director Jay Roach and scenarists David Guion and Michael Handelman of “The Ex” must have forgotten that anybody who tries to remake a Veber film is doomed. Every Americanized version of a Veber movie--“The Toy,” “The Man with One Red Shoe,” “Three Fugitives,” “Pure Luck,” and “Fathers’ Day”—tanked and stank. Mind you, it is always a pleasure to watch Carell cutting up, and he seems to be genuinely having fun as an IRS processor and mouse taxidermist who assembles the dead rodents in detailed dioramas. Incidentally, designer Joel Venti and the cult effects Chiodo brothers, Charles, Edward and Stephen , who fashioned the puppets for "Team America: World Police,” whipped up these inventive dioramas. The point is that Carell steals the show, but the show really isn’t worth stealing. When Carell isn’t carrying on his shtick, “Dinner for Schmucks” sucks.

Financial analyst Tim Conrad (Paul Rudd of “Sidekicks”) has been pestering his cute girlfriend Julie (Stephanie Szostak of “The Devil Wears Prada”) to marry him, but she is a career girl who orchestrates elaborate art sales. Meanwhile, Tim lives in an elegant apartment and drives an expensive sports car that he really cannot afford. After the president of Tim’s firm, Lance Fender (Bruce Greenwood of “Star Trek”), pink-slips an executive who took the business down the wrong path, Tim angles for the promotion. Tim concocts a scheme to bring billionaire Swiss entrepreneur, Mueller (David Walliams of “Stardust”), to Fender Financial. Mueller owns a munitions firm with tons of leftover ordnance from World War I, basically bombs, and Tim has figured out a way to convert the bombs into lamps. Of course, Fender Financial will take a bath marketing the bomb lamps, but they will clean up managing Mueller’s portfolio. Fender is desperately searching for ideas to turn his company around when Tim pitches his proposal. Initially, Fender wants to hand the project over to one of his surefire executives, but he finds Tim’s blind ambition so refreshing that he lets him woo Mueller. Fender tells our hero about his super-secret party and invites him to bring the biggest boob. It doesn’t take Julie long to convince Tim that the dinner is a dumb idea. Nevertheless, Tim needs that promotion so desperately so he can sweep Julie off her feet that he sets out to find a loser.

Literally, Tim collides with a loser. Barry Speck (Steve Carell) is picking up a dead mouse for his mice diorama when Tim hits him. Fortunately, Barry is none the worse for landing on Tim’s hood and then being hurled several feet away. Initially, Tim fears the worst when Barry and he try to reach a monetary settlement, until Tim realizes that Barry plans to pay him for the damage to his Porsche. After Tim breathes a sigh of relief, he asks Barry what he was doing in the middle of the street. Barry shows Tim the dead mouse that he was trying to retrieve from the asphalt before our hero could flatten it with his tires. Barry flaunts a book that contains photographs of the dead mice after he has dressed them up to resemble famous paintings, such as Whistler’s mother. Tim knows a good thing when he sees it and cultivates Barry’s friendship. Meantime, after Julie gets wind of what Tim plans to do, she wants to break up and devote herself to her latest insane art client, Kieran Vollard (Jemaine Clement of “Gentlemen Broncos”), whose art works of himself dressed up in a satyr costume are selling like crazy. As nutty as Barry is, Barry stands no chance alongside the warped, egotistical genius of Kieran. Predictably, Tim learns his lesson, and Barry and he show up Fender for the snobbish ape that he really is. However, before Barry can win the trophy as the biggest idiot, he must confront his intimidating IRS co-worker, Therman (Zach Galifianakis of “The Hangover”), another hopeless moron who constantly overshadows Barry.
Incongruity is the source of the best comedy. The buffoons that Steve Carell, Jemaine Clement, and Zach Galifianakis play in “Dinner for Schmucks” are as funny as this labored comedy gets. What makes these performances work so well is that the actors appear to have no idea how ridiculous they look. Carell looks like he is channeling the comic actor Austin Pendleton of “My Cousin Vinny” with his spectacles, buck-teeth, and wacky haircut that makes him look particularly nerdy. Jemaine Clement scores points for “Dinner” as an eccentric artist obsessed with all things goat, and Zach Galifianakis never misses a chance to make himself look hopelessly cretinous. Despite its interesting characters, “Dinner for Schmucks” belongs in a richly deserved doggie bag, but not as a treat.