MOVIE REVIEW: Dinner for Schmucks


Actors repeatedly go on record in interviews to say that comedy is the hardest thing to do in movies.  When on the set and the cameras are rolling, actors and actresses say that they don't know what works and what doesn't in their performances until they see the final product on screen.  Other than trusting the writing, they don't know what will bring out the laughs because there's no audience to play off of.  They don't know if the risks they are taking as actors to make fools of themselves will pay off to hook the viewer.

The director, writers, and stars of Dinner for Schmucks had to have some of those feelings while making the movie.  On paper, they had to wonder what they were getting into.  The premise is preposterous and sounds like it came off a Balderdash game card of ridiculous, yet real movie plots: "a corporate-ladder climbing executive accidentally meets a mouse taxidermist and has to get him to dinner of idiots to help him get made fun of in order to earn a promotion, all while your girlfriend works for artist specializing in magnetic animal eroticism."  Huh?  What?!  How in the hell do you make that work?  How do you act and sell that?

That's where talent, in front of and behind the camera, comes in.  Talented comedians make the hardest style of acting look easy and effortless.  Steve Carell, Paul Rudd, Jemaine Clement, and Zack Galifianakis are just that talented.  Talented directors know how to play a scene and showcase the comedy that's on the page, even if the story is complete unbelievable nonsense.  Director Jay Roach has become the master of the "hilarious uncomfortable situation" thanks to his work helming Meet the Parents, Meet the Fockers, and the Austin Powers trilogy, even if they don't exactly give out Oscars for that.  Did you read that plot detail above?  Imagine many uncomfortable situations stemming from that scenario that make a dinner table with Robert DeNiro and Ben Stiller look like microwave macaroni-and-cheese.

Paul Rudd, who's made a living lately playing the leading doormat everyman (I Love You Man, Role Models), is that ladder-climbing executive, named Tim, who needs to impress his bosses and rivals (played appropriately by Office Space's Ron Livingston and dependable supporting actor Bruce Greenwood) with an entry guest into their humiliation collection dinner in order to secure a promotion.  By dumb luck, he hits a pedestrian with his Porsche that turns out to be IRS auditor Barry Speck (Steve Carell).  Barry's hobby, in his seemingly infinite spare time, is collecting dead mice which he uses his taxidermy skills on to dress up and create "mouse-terpieces," 3D box dioramas of famous scenes.  Yes, you heard right: IRS, taxidermy, and "mouse-terpieces."  I shit you not...

Tim thinks he's found just the obscurely strange and talented idiot for his boss's dinner, even if his girlfriend Julie disapproves of the idea.  She repeatedly urges him to quit rather than to stoop to this idiocracy.  Julie herself works with quite the odd-bird as a curator for erotic artist, Kieran Vollard (Jemaine Clement, one half of the Flight of the Conchords comedy duo), who creates romantic competition for Tim.  Once Tim invites Barry to the "special" dinner and Barry starts to visit and poke around Tim's life, the hilarious trainwreck of uncomfortable situations begins.  I could offer examples and details of things that come next, but you would never believe me and they're too crazy to describe.

It's all of that talent that makes the unwatchable plotline of Dinner for Schmucks watchable and even hilarious.  Steve Carell plays the most clueless and bumbling nerd of a character I have ever seen.  He's Forrest Gump on Ritalin and Inspector Clouseau hooked on TiVo.  Everyone knows from The Office that Steve Carell can play aloof, but he takes it to another level and performs every calamity and line with such straight-faced, unflinching perfection.  Leslie Nielsen would be proud!  Paul Rudd, while he's nowhere near to being today's Jack Lemmon, has the unenviable task of trying to play straight and play off of such an enormous personality. 

Two supporting performances add to the talent and arguably steal the show.  Zack Galifianakis appears as Barry's IRS rival who stole his wife and dabbles in mind control.  He too brings the same calculated straight-face and delivery that he's becoming known for.  It's New Zealander Jemaine Clement that tops them all for aloof and eccentric characterization.  The speech, swagger, and mannerisms he creates for the voracious and vivacious Kieran is incredibly over-the-top, but tremendously funny.  They could make an entire movie of his character in Carell's place at it would still be enjoyable and unbelievable.

Dinner for Schmucks is as stupid as its wildly eccentric characters, but it delivers the laugh-out-loud moments missing from a lot of comedies this summer.  It might not be a as cool as The Other Guys, but it multiplies and exceeds on anything Russell Brand did with Jonah Hill's help in Get Him to the Greek.  It's as dumb as it sounds, but surprisingly worth the price of admission.

LESSON #1: DON'T MAKE FUN OF THOSE WHO ARE DIFFERENT-- I'm not giving anything away that you can't see ten miles ahead of time when I mention that Tim, after a while, starts to identify with Barry and what makes him special, even if he is a train wreck in Tim's life.  He rightfully rises above the urge and tendency to make fun of those people who are different and eccentric and begins to show care and concern with how people treat Barry.  Good man!  You don't have to be their friend, but you shouldn't make fun of those who are different.

LESSON #2: EVERYONE, NO MATTER HOW COOL YOU THINK YOU ARE, IS A LITTLE WEIRD ON THE INSIDE-- You may not be the type of person to dress dead mice up into the scene from "The Last Supper."  You may not wear dickeys, write books, and practice mind control.  You probably don't communicate with dead people or believe your ventriloquist doll is your wife.  Call it OCD, a fetish, or even a hobby, but, deep down, everyone has their own private individual weirdness about them on the inside.  Everyone has something, some idiosyncrasy or secret side about them, that they don't publicize.  Know that when you encounter other people.

LESSON #3: DON'T INVITE WEIRDOS INTO YOUR HOME-- For as much as I just wrote about respecting and acknowledging those who are different, at the same time, you still better make good choices to protect yourself from weirdos.  Have boundaries that match your comfort level.  If you're trying to be friendly with someone but not trying to be true friends, don't give them your address.  Don't invite them into your home.  Don't let them spend the night.  Don't mix them with work and don't let them talk to your significant other.  Respect and acknowledge their differences all you want, but, come on, to you, let's be honest, they're still weirdos.  Be cool about it, but know where and when to draw the line and not let them cross it.