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‘Dinner for Schmucks’ less than appetizing

POSTED: August 4, 2010 11:30 p.m.
/Paramount Pictures

Steve Carell, left, and Paul Rudd ham it up in "Dinner for Schmucks."

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A movie titled "Dinner for Schmucks" pretty much requires me to use some food metaphors, and rather than try to sneak them in as if it’s far more clever than it really is, let’s just embrace the cliché, shall we? Here’s a review of the movie as if it were a seven-course meal.

The appetizer—the first few scenes—just gives us the set-up, which we already know from the trailer. Actually, it’s practically clear from the title itself. Tim (Paul Rudd) is trying to work his way up the corporate ladder, but in order to become one of the big boys, he must attend a dinner where all the executives bring idiot guests and secretly make fun of them.

Tim sees how morally repulsive this is and seems ready to back out, until he meets Barry (Steve Carell). Let’s call this the soup course. Barry steps in front of Tim’s Porsche while picking up a dead mouse from the street. Barry uses the mice as characters in elaborate dioramas so meticulously crafted that each one must take weeks. Some dramatize historic moments, others scenes from his own pathetic life. Barry is so moronic he assumes he’s at fault for scratching Tim’s Porsche. Barry is such a gem of a schmuck that Tim HAS to show him off to the other suits, right?

The salad course arrives, and well, how many exciting salads have you ever had? We meet Tim’s beautiful, successful girlfriend Julie (Stephanie Szostak), who hates the idea of the dinner.

Early courses are supposed to be light, giving us the chance to talk to interesting people and possibly loosen up with a drink or two. Nobody in "Dinner for Schmucks" sets the table aroar early on, though, not even Carell or Rudd.

Most scenes in the second act are far too much like real palate cleansers, the next course. Their only purpose is to prepare us for the main courses. The only thing that saves this section of the movie is the supporting cast.

Zach Galifianakis continues to make a career of rescuing movies, this time as Barry’s boss and romantic rival, Therman. He’s as clueless as Barry but believes he has telepathic powers. Galifianakis plays this combination of arrogance and idiocy perfectly.

Jemaine Clement also kills as an over-sexed bohemian artist named Kieran who’s quite a schmuck himself. Unfortunately, the talented Judy Punch is wasted as Tim’s long-time stalker. There’s no reason for her to be in this movie, and the over-the-top character doesn’t fit with the understated comedy.

When "Dinner for Schmucks" finally gets to the main courses, the dinner of its title, it’s genuinely hilarious. The movie is just shy of two hours long, and it’s hard to understand why director Jay Roach didn’t want to get to the dinner scenes earlier.

Everything naturally wraps up with a dessert, but this one is too sweet and overcooked. But then, that’s hardly rare these days. Even in Judd Apatow’s crude, cynical comedies ("Knocked Up," "Get Him to the Greek"), it seems we always have to find a tender final moment, no matter how badly it fits the rest of the movie. The same rule applies here.

That’s the biggest weakness of the whole movie, actually—it’s far too nice. This is a mean-spirited, satirical premise, and the French movie on which it’s based, "The Dinner Game," is appropriately sarcastic.

"Dinner for Schmucks" removes all the satire and most of the tension, in the name of making a feel-good movie. The tone just doesn’t mesh with the premise. And Tim’s life is already quite nice, so it’s hard to understand why he’d want to join this dinner club anyway. Which might make you wonder why you’re watching the movie.

We’re left with an unoffensive light comedy that will help pass a couple of hours. But expect to be hungry for something else soon after.

Jeff Marker is a media studies professor at Gainesville State College.



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