Dinner for Schmucks is really good at being stupid, and that's meant as a compliment; in its best moments, this cruel, slapdash farce achieves a sort of inspired idiocy. Based on a decade-old French film that only film critics will claim to have seen, comedy ace Jay Roach's update takes a basic premise; corporate snobs invite weirdos to a banquet so they can be mocked, and keeps layering characters and subplots into an overloaded comic casserole that's all empty calories but still pretty satisfying.
Paul Rudd is the slow-burn master; as Tim, a mild-mannered office drone with executive aspirations, he's tasked with holding the picture together when it starts spinning off the rails, which is fairly often. With his even-keel persona, Rudd plays Abbott to Steve Carell's spastic Costello, where a calming influence is sorely needed. This is Carell at his most grating, making Michael Scott look like the prom king; he's pushing his trademark mix of geeky charm and straight-up obnoxiousness beyond reasonable limits. Carell is Barry, a meek, windbreaker-clad doofus, an IRS agent schlep who'll apologize when Tim accidentally hits him with his Porsche. From this meeting, the two become a pair, though neither really knows what he has gotten himself into.
Barry is a menace, interfering in every aspect of Tim's relationship and career; he becomes so irksome that the impending dinner-party ridicule is too easy a fate. Steve Martin's influence has never been more obvious in Carell: Barry is socially clueless, but smart enough to be devious, and his "talent" — making cutesy historical dioramas with embalmed mice — is both endearing and creepy.
Director Roach has a pedigree of box-office smashes (Meet the Fockers, Austin Powers), though he's sometimes little more than a traffic cop here. Roach has assembled lots of comedy talent, including The Daily Show's Larry Wilmore, and Office Space's Ron Livingston, then is unsure of what to do with them.
Case in point: The quirkily funny Kristen Schaal plays Rudd's co-worker desperate to get promoted because the sixth floor "smells like cabbage." She promptly vanishes by the third act.
But the flick leaves space for more fits of hilarity. Particularly Jemaine Clement (Flight of the Conchords) as a hypersexualized artist and Zach Galifianakis — in a bravura turn — as Barry's fatuous "mind control" expert rival. Like any Carell project, there's an ad-libbed feel, and the collected outtakes could no doubt fill a bookshelf of DVD extras.
While big laughs can be had from these foolish guys, there are no real emotions at stake, as in the star's I Love You, Man and 40 Year Old Virgin.
Just as Carell's chaotic antics become intolerable, the big dinner scene saves it with enough hearty belly chuckles to overcome a bad aftertaste.
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].