Film Review: Dinner for Schmucks

A clockwork French farce becomes a rambling Hollywood buddy comedy that's alternately hilarious and cringe-inducing.

Any film scholar looking to write a paper exploring the differences between French and American screen comedy couldn’t ask for a better case study than the 1998 Gallic feature Le Diner de Cons (The Dinner Game) and its 2010 Hollywood remake Dinner for Schmucks. The new film follows the same basic premise as its predecessor—a businessman (Paul Rudd) is invited to a dinner party where he’s required to bring along an idiot (Steve Carell) for the amusement of his colleagues—but diverges wildly in tone, characterization and even sense of humor.

Francis Veber’s original is textbook farce, a zippy comedy of errors set over the course of one night in a single location, with the characters functioning primarily as cogs in the carefully constructed plot mechanics. Jay Roach’s remake, on the other hand, is a loose and shambling buddy comedy, where the narrative is often put on the backburner so that a menagerie of eccentrics—all of whom are played by skilled comics with a flair for improvisation—can ping-pong off one another while a straight man (in this case Rudd) glowers, yells and occasionally lets slip a well-timed quip or two.

Both movies also mine comedy from vastly different subjects. For example, The Dinner Game features jokes about casual infidelity, vinegary wine, outrageous Belgian accents and, perhaps most improbably, doctors who make house calls. Meanwhile, Dinner for Schmucks offers gags involving gonorrhea, the clitoris, pompous modern artists and public humiliation. (If a country’s reputation were defined solely by what it laughs at, America wouldn’t come off looking too good here.) The films don’t even agree on what constitutes an idiot. The Dinner Game’s François Pignon (Jacques Villeret) is a bumbling buffoon, while Dinner for Schmucks’ Barry Speck (Carell) is as an emotionally stunted man-child desperately in need of a good pal and a hug.

The Dinner Game and Dinner for Schmucks do have one thing in common—they’re both pretty darn funny, albeit, again, in distinct ways. The chief pleasure of Veber’s film is its clockwork precision; as in any good farce, there’s plenty of chaos, but it’s all organized chaos. With Schmucks, the main draw is the cast, all of whom have clearly been encouraged to embellish and expand on the material they were given to play. That’s why Zach Galifianakis, cast in a small role as a tax auditor who believes he has mind-control powers, is allowed to spend entire scenes making crazy eyes at Carell’s mild-mannered Barry, while Jemaine Clement of “Flight of the Conchords,” playing a sneering visual artist with bizarre sexual fetishes, can launch into a too-detailed description of his experience assisting his pet zebra in the delivery of her baby. These moments may sound dubious on the page, but they earn big laughs onscreen, because the actors fully commit to their outsized portrayals.

Unlike the supporting players, the movie’s leading idiot, Carell, faces the difficult task of being both outrageous and sympathetic and mostly pulls it off. As he proved in The 40-Year-Old Virgin—not to mention throughout his soon-to-end stint on “The Office”—Carell excels at taking a potentially creepy character and playing him as a likeable, even relatable guy. At the end of the day, all Barry wants is to help people; it’s just a shame that he’s so bad at it.

The downside to Roach’s decision to let the inmates run the asylum is that when the actors aren’t clicking or, worse, if they push themselves too far and cross the line from funny to irritating, the movie comes to a complete standstill. Dinner for Schmucks has a fair number of scenes that fall flat, most notably an extended sequence in a ritzy restaurant that’s more awkward and uncomfortable than amusing. The movie also suffers from the increasing trend in Hollywood comedies towards dopey sentimentality, most obviously expressed in its need to ensure that all the characters—particularly Rudd, who takes the movie’s least interesting personality and heroically makes him a full comic partner in the proceedings—learn a lesson by the time the credits roll. The businessman and the idiot eventually came to an understanding in Veber’s film as well, but the process wasn’t quite as protracted and sappy as it is here. As a light summer trifle, Dinner for Schmucks entertains, but it may have benefitted from more of that famous French rigueur.