The original 1998 French film Le diner de cons (The Dinner Game), written by Francis Veber (La cage aux folles; Le jouet [The Toy] and Le grand blond avec une chaussure noir [The Tall Blond with One Black Shoe] -- all of which have been remade and adapted in variously successful ways) was a very European black comedy about doing whatever it takes to get to the top. It's very funny, but also very, very mean-spirited.
So, after an exceptionally delicious meal at Hunami in Princeton (featuring the most astonishingly good vegetable dumplings either of us had ever had), D and I went to see Dinner for Schmucks.
As adapted by the writers of The Ex (a movie I actually liked a lot), Dinner for Schmucks is a kinder, gentler, more Disneyfied version, more suited toward the post-sexual revolution America and their parents. Recently revealed obsession Paul Rudd is Tim, a 6th floor corporate drone, looking for his opportunity to move up to the 7th floor and an office of his own, so he can convince his long-term girlfriend that he's worthy of marrying. After the ouster of a 7th floor exec, Tim makes his move, impressing his boss (Star Trek's Bruce Greenwood) enough to consider him for promotion, upon completion of a challenge. Once a month, each executive brings a guest to a special dinner. The challenge is to see which executive can bring the biggest idiot. If Tim wins the challenge, the promotion is his. Girlfriend and art gallery curator Julie (Stephanie Szostak) finds the idea repulsive and Tim agrees to cancel. Until he literally runs into Barry (Steve Carrell), a weird IRS worker and amateur taxidermist who is in the midst of recreating famous works of art as "Mouseterpieces." Thinking he has secured his promotion, Tim invites Barry to a dinner for "extraordinary people.' Needless to say, all sort of chaos ensues.
As I watched Dinner for Schmucks, I couldn't help but think of the similarities between it and Larry Shue's astonishingly funny 1981 play The Nerd, in conceit, if not plot. In The Nerd, a 30 year-old architect thinks he's living the life he's always wanted, when an exceptionally stupid and socially inept person enters his life, causing chaos which ultimately leads to... (somewhat of a SPOILER ALERT) happily ever afters all around. Change professions and replace a plot-twist or two with... well, not exactly plot twists, and you have Dinner for Schmucks.
The still-adorable Rudd plays Tim as the perfect straight man to all the insanity around him (20 years ago, Clooney would have played this part and 50 years ago, Jack Lemmon). Ron Livingston (Office Space) plays Rudd's nemesis, affronted by Tim's audacity. Other dinner guests include an array of popular character actors, including Chris O'Dowd as a blind swordsman; Jeff Dunham as a ventriloquist married to a slutty dummy; Octavia Spencer as a Pet Medium (I see dead puppies?) and Patrick Fischler as a scarred and bandaged vulture enthusiast.
Of course, Carrell is the heart of the movie. Barry may be really stupid, but he's never afraid to tell the truth and never afraid to be himself. A master of babbling (see Bruce, Almighty), Carrell manages to make Barry's malapropisms, historical ignorance and complete lack of social skills endearing, rather than annoying (even D went "Awwww..." at one revealing moment). Super-shiny smile ablaze, Carrell's Barry refuses to be beaten down, no matter how horribly life seems to have treated him. Almost stealing the movie away from Carrell are Jemaine Clement ("The Flight of the Conchords") as a self-absorbed artist and Zach Galifianakas (The Hangover) as Barry's co-worker Therman, who has convinced Barry that he has the power of mind-control.
Director Jay Roach (Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery) keeps the ultimately gentle farce moving along at an appropriate pace and manages to capture several very funny set-pieces, though with no particular style of which to take note. D and I laughed often, despite the movie's rather predictable plot. The biggest laughs came from the performances of Carrell and the other dinner guests. I imagine the Blu-Ray release will include all kinds of hilarious improvs that were left out of the final cut. Hardly a comedy masterpiece, Dinner for Schmucks (which curiously never uses the word "schmuck" in its dialog) is probably the best comedy of the summer, though that's not saying much in what I am officially dubbing The Summer of Movies that Sucked. Amusing and relatively inoffensive (which is also its biggest problem), Dinner for Schmucks was ultimately better than either of us expected, by not quite as good as I had hoped. **1/2 (Two and a Half Stars out of Four).
And (as promised in this post's title) here's a special bonus:
Ladies and Gentlemen, the next Governor of the Great State of Tennessee?
So do I get murdered or do I go to jail? Make up my mind, please.