Saturday, August 28, 2010

Dinner For Schmucks

“Dinner for Schmucks” is based on a 12-year-old French movie known in English as “The Dinner Game.” It walks between nasty and sweet, balancing the crude, rude humor of humiliation with an affirming message: humane understanding.

The movie is funny. Consider Jemaine Clement (Flight of the Conchords) as a pompous, surreal artist; Zach Galifianakis as an I.R.S. flunky who believes he can control other minds; Lucy Punch as a lovestruck stalker, an uhinged Courtney Love. They help drive the movie along its meandering, offbeat path toward a wild climax followed by a softer, loving reconciliation.

"Dinner" has an erratic rhythm and is never dull. Tim (Paul Rudd), an analyst at a private equity firm, tries for his boss's attention (Bruce Greenwood) and to run with the office sharks. Tim wants a big promotion; he wants to marry his girlfriend, Julie (Stephanie Szostak); and he wants to have his aggressive business side to coexist with his nice guy side.

The tension in Tim between being successful and being humane underlies the movie. The boss and his disciples invite Tim to a regular dinner to which eccentrics — described as “idiots” and “losers”, ostensibly the movie's schmucks — are invited to be ridiculed while they think they’re being honored. Tim is appalled--"That's messed up." But then he meets Barry Speck (Steve Carell), ostensibly the biggest loser in L.A. Has God given him this gift and way forward to career success?

Wearing what look like prosthetic teeth Carell plays a man utterly clueless about his impression on the world. Barry, an IRS bureaucrat whose makes dioramas out of dead mice, is both a naif and relentlessly pushy. His simple mindedness and vulnerability inspire a protective instinct in Tim, even as Barry’s habit of farcically messing up everything in Tim’s life inspires some cruelty.

We are revulsed by Barry's intrusive nerdiness throughout much of "Dinner" and then are drawn to him to him increasingly. We are with him especially at the final reversal when the true schmucks are revealed. At the same time, by the time of the reversal, Tim’s humaneness--the nice guy in him--wins. Carrell puts together being obnoxious, stupid, endearing, finally intelligent, sensitive and a real and forgiving friend.

“Dinner for Schmucks” isn't near great. But it's very funny throughout while being bittersweet and while at times turning maudlin. People stumble and fall; many things break; break, odd characters speak strangely; weird accents abound; so do bizarre misunderstandings. But within the broadly drawn lines and in the midst of the farce comes a a real sense of Barry's pathos, which lends the relentness comedy some humanity.

Three out of five.

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