'Schmucks' leaves viewers' appetite unsated

Posted: Thursday, August 05, 2010

Steve Carrell and Paul Rudd have worked together before. First, as part of Ron Bergundy's entourage in "Anchorman," and later in the hilarious and surprisingly sweet "40 Year-Old Virgin." Both of those projects must have looked a little odd on paper, though the end results were mostly right on the money. That, perhaps, explains why these two smart comedians took a chance on an American remake of a French farce, the erratic hit and miss mess that is "Dinner for Schmucks." I can't imagine that the script really read all that well, but Rudd and Carrell must have figured, "Well, it's always worked out ok before..."

"Schmucks" is built around a preposterous one-note premise, that wealthy investment traders gather together once a month, hosting a dinner wherein everyone makes fun of some extraordinary idiot or another. This gives the screenwriters ample opportunity to let the idiots, Carrell's Barry, for example, play up the wackiness, while ensuring that the mean snobs will get theirs in the end. This is fine, to an extent, but when the film wanders into dark humor, the jokes start to fall flat and what you're left with is an awkward feeling that maybe you just laughed reflexively at something that wasn't really all that funny.

Rudd is Tim, a climber in the previously mentioned investment firm who needs a promotion badly. For one, his assistant is tired of their second-class digs on the sixth floor. For another, Tim's lifestyle is rapidly outpacing his income. But most of all, he wants to impress his French art gallery curator girlfriend enough to get her to agree to marry him. When his opportunity arrives, he pounces, impressing the top brass with a great presentation and a potential financial windfall for the company. Along with the new office comes the invitation to the titular dinner, itself a kind of final test to see if the new guy can fit in. Does he take the job, moral conundrum and all, or does he take the high road and refuse? That question is answered when he meets Barry, a lonely IRS agent who happens to create elaborate dioramas with taxidermied mice in his spare time. Barry seems like the perfect schmuck with which to impress the boss, but Barry wants more than just a dinner invite. Barry needs an actual friend, and what follows is forty-eight hours of comedic chaos as he manages to turn Tim's entire world upside-down.

"Schmucks" is a movie with a lot of highs and a lot of lows and very little in between. The calculation has to come with whether the lows were so low that you wished you'd skipped the movie. Tim has a stalker that's supposed to be hilarious, but the actress plays it too dark and creepy to really be funny. Barry's life is really, really depressing. So much so that you wonder how he continues to function at all. The implication is, I guess, that he's such an oblivious idiot that he doesn't know any better, but somehow adding the phrase "oblivious idiot" to an already shattered life doesn't make me feel any better about it. And the taxidermied mice. I know it's supposed to be funny, and it sometimes is, but even by the end of the film, when I'm supposed to have turned around and see everything in a new light, I still couldn't shake the innate revulsion at the idea of taking dead rodents, preserving them, and then playing with them like little dolls. Yeeeesh.

That's not to say that a lot of the movie isn't pretty funny. Rudd, playing more the straight man, does a fine job here and manages to salvage most of his scenes. Carrell, who is basically playing his "Office" character Michael Scott, sans any of Scott's meager tact or talent, is less funny than I've seen him before, but still manages to make me laugh most of the time.

Both he and Rudd are such likeable performers that, even when the film gets too dark or too mean-spirited, they manage to keep it somewhat afloat. My favorite parts of the film, however, are with New Zealand actor Jemaine Clement, who plays a narcissistic artist named Kieran. Clement is best known for playing a fictional version of himself on the short-lived series "Flight of the Conchords," and his Kieran easily steals every scene he's in. Wildly hedonistic, but with a kind of zen attitude, he reminded me a little of Russell Brand's Aldous Snow, with some dry "Conchords" humor thrown in. He provides the perfect romantic rival for Tim, and a great comedic counterpoint for Barry - an example of a freaky weirdo who's not depressed and lonely, but instead surrounded by half-naked women.

The big payoff of this film is the actual dinner scene and, much like the rest of the movie, it works and it doesn't. The other idiots are kind of funny, as in the guy who brings the live vulture, or the World Beard Champion; kind of creepy, as in the ventriloquist with the sexually aggressive "wife" doll; and just sad, as in the blind fencing champion and Therman, the man who can control your mind. Therman is Barry's boss, and, as played by it-boy of the moment Zach Galifianakis, is just plain vicious. Not funny, and way too much of the outcome of the film rests on his scenes. In the end, though I found myself laughing out loud quite a bit, the slightly disturbed feeling I came away with wasn't really worth it. "Schmucks" had potential, but much like any bad dinner party, the appetizers are the best part, the entree's overcooked, and by the end of the night you just can't wait to go home. Grade: C

"Dinner for Schmucks" is rated PG-13 for language, crude and sexual humor, and partial nudity.

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