Thursday, August 5, 2010

Dinner for Schmucks: Overcooked

Dinner for Schmucks (2010) • View trailer for Dinner for Schmucks
Three stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, and somewhat generously, for sexual candor, partial nudity and considerable smutty content
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.5.10
Buy DVD: Dinner for Schmucks • Buy Blu-Ray: Dinner for Schmucks [Blu-ray]

American remakes of French comedies generally don't work very well, although that doesn't stop Hollywood from trying. 

Tinseltown studio execs love to extol rare successes such as The Birdcage (from La Cage Aux Folles) and Three Men and a Baby (Trois Hommes et un Couffin), conveniently forgetting that every hit stands in the far larger shadow of numerous train wrecks: The Toy (Le Jouet), Buddy, Buddy (L'emmerdeur), The Man with One Red Shoe (Le Grand Blond avec une Chaussure Noire), Just Visiting (Les Visiteurs), My Father, the Hero (Mon Pere, ce Heros), Pure Luck (Le Chevre), Jungle 2 Jungle (Un Indien dans la Ville) and The Man Who Loved Women (Franois Truffaut's L'homme Qui Aimait les Femmes, no less), among many others. 
In desperate need of a total boob to bring as a guest to his boss' cruel dinner
party, Tim (Paul Rudd) bumps into Barry (Steve Carell), a mousy IRS agent
who can't wait to share his unusual hobby: "mouse-terpiece" tableaus that
feature tiny stuffed rodents wearing itty-bitty human outfits. Yes, that's "The
Last Supper," and the astonished Tim is holding Jesus himself.

Honestly, the list is endless. 

Part of the problem is scale: American directors can't resist the compulsion to make a small joke large, a large joke massive, and a massive joke elephantine. If destroying a chair is funny, then destroying an entire apartment building must be even funnier. (Well ... no.) All sense of proportion is lost, and the scene's humor is sacrificed to bombast. 

The most awkward efforts, though, involve a sexual element: always a major mistake. The French handle sensuality and casual infidelity far differently than we do; their playful je ne sais quoi makes such movies erotic and droll, whereas American translations inevitably feel awkward, forced and vulgar. 

So: When American director Jay Roach focuses on the central relationship between Barry (Steve Carell) and Tim (Paul Rudd), Dinner for Schmucks stays on solid ground and is both funny and unexpectedly poignant. Credit Carell for the latter; he can go from unabashedly goofy to morosely vulnerable in the blink of an eye. 

But when Roach and screenwriters David Guion and Michael Handelman stray into the sexier territory inhabited with cheerful inhibition by Francis Veber's Le Diner de Cons, which inspired this film, the results fall as flat as the proverbial pancake. Great chunks of Dinner for Schmucks  those involving a hedonistic photographer/artist (Jemaine Clement, as Kieran) and Barry's grasping, sex-crazed, long-ago one-night stand (Lucy Punch, as Darla)  land with thuds that reverberate for miles. 

Both Clement and Punch are given impossible dialogue and thrust into stupidly contrived situations; Kieran's conversations about goats could win the annual Bulwer-Lytton Award for bad writing. 
Most of these scenes could be excised and not be missed, and Roach's overlong, self-indulgent two-hour film would clock in at a more economical  and much more palatable  95 minutes or so. (Veber's original runs a fast-paced 80 minutes.) 

All that said... 

Tim, an underling analyst at Fender Financial, has impressed company head Lance Fender (Bruce Greenwood) enough to be considered for an office on the lofty seventh floor. This is great news for Tim, who hopes the pending promotion will encourage longtime girlfriend Julie (Stephanie Szostak) to accept an upgrade to fiancee. 

But the climb to the seventh floor is contingent on Tim's attending a monthly dinner at Fender's palatial estate. This is no routine social engagement; Fender has built a competition with his closest work colleagues, each of whom must bring an "extraordinary person" as a guest. And by extraordinary, Fender means unusual ... fringe-dwelling ... uniquely eccentric. 

The guests believe they're being honored for their unconventional hobbies or affectations, when in fact Fender and his arrogant associates serve them up for cruel sport, up to the point where Fender presents a trophy to the evening's "best idiot." 

The name of the game is clandestine humiliation, and Tim's expected to play along. 

Julie is horrified. Her reaction prompts Tim to check in with his nobler instincts, which threaten to win out. 

Then he accidentally bumps into Barry, an IRS agent and amateur taxidermist. The socially inept but impressively gregarious Barry insists on sharing his hobby: miniature tableaus of dead mice in tiny human outfits, recreating everything from parkland picnics to the Last Supper. 

(We're actually first exposed to Barry's "mouse-terpieces" during the film's opening credits, as he painstakingly assembles a huge tabletop diorama in his home. These and many other mouse tableaus, popping up at key moments throughout the film  including the closing credits, so don't depart too quickly  actually were created by effects wizards Stephen, Charles and Edward Chiodo, and they're too cute  and funny  for words.) 

With such a perfect doofus literally dropped into his lap, how can Tim not believe that God wants him to attend that dinner party? 

Naturally, he'll pay for succumbing to this baser instinct. 

The clinging Barry, in desperate need of a friend, attaches himself to Tim like a leech. Subsequent hijinks include mistaken identities involving Julie and Darla; Kieran's lecherous designs on Julie; Tim's bad back; the destruction of both Tim's car and apartment (the latter somehow restored to perfect order in between scenes); a condescending Swiss industrialist whom Fender wants as a client; and another IRS lunatic (Zach Galifianakis, as Therman), whose talents at "mind control" have demeaned poor Barry to a degree that Fender would recognize and admire. 

All of which builds up to the climactic dinner itself, which gets even crazier. 

None of this is subtle; we're talking a level of giddy verbal and physical slapstick that one would expect from the director who brought us the Austin Powers series and Meet the Parents and its sequel, Meet the Fockers. Roach isn't known for restraint or good taste, and this film has neither. 

Even so, it's hilarious at times, thanks mostly to Carell's oddly endearing performance as Barry. Whether obliviously spouting non-sequitors or moving about in the graceless manner of a marionette whose strings have loosened, Carell owns this film. Barry is a walking disaster zone, but we can't take our eyes off him; like Tim, we're ever more stupefied by the entirely new ways that Barry can screw something up, or make an even greater fool of himself. 

This remains palatable only because Carell shades his performance in order to secure and retain our sympathy for this nebbish. Barry has positive qualities and is genuinely pitiable, which perhaps sets him apart from Jacques Villeret, who had much more in common with a bumbling Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin, in Le Diner de Cons

(For the record, Villeret's Franois built elaborate models with matchsticks. I prefer Barry's hobby.) 

Rudd, generally a flat and unmemorable actor, rises to the occasion as the frequent straight man to Barry's crazed behavior. Rudd gets considerable mileage from his long-suffering pauses, and he gives Tim just the proper amount of moxie to sell the business acumen that impresses Fender, while retaining enough humanity to prevent a slide into complete villainy. 

We've seen this sort of reluctant corporate enthusiasm before; Jack Lemmon memorably walked that razor's edge between good and evil in Billy Wilder's classic, The Apartment. Rudd doesn't have Lemmon's superb comic timing, but we never completely hate Tim, and that's no small thing. 

Szostak is appropriately fetching as the gal of Tim's dreams, and Kristen Schaal is a hoot in her brief part as Tim's assistant. The various 'extraordinary people' who eventually pop up at Fender's dinner party are best left as a surprise. 

My relationship with Roach's films is best described as love/hate; they're generally too funny (in spots) to dismiss entirely, but too uneven to recommend wholeheartedly. Dinner for Schmucks is no different. It can be admired for Carell's performance and Barry's idiosyncratic hobby, and for a few of the plot shenanigans ... but if you're after gasping-for-breath hilarity, you'll do far better with Veber's Le Diner de Cons

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