Thank God that “Dinner for Schmucks” is not the soulless, mean-spirited movie that its ads make it out to be. If anything, it’s like “The Cable Guy” crossed with “Dennis the Menace,” if Dennis grew up to be geeky and completely lacking in self-awareness and common sense. Unfortunately, heart or no heart, it’s still not very funny. Outrageous, perhaps, but it’s too full of itself to get emotionally invested in.
Financial analyst Tim (Paul Rudd) wants a promotion, and when he makes an impressive pitch to company head Lance (Bruce Greenwood), he receives an opportunity to make the jump to the next level: bring the best guest to his next monthly “Dinner for Winners,” where the person who brings the biggest idiot wins. Tim thinks that’s mean, as does his girlfriend Julie (Stephanie Szostak), but when he literally runs over taxidermy fan Barry (Steve Carell) with his car, he’s convinced he can’t lose the dinner, thus guaranteeing his promotion. Barry, however, proves to be far more trouble than he’s worth, innocently turning Tim’s life upside-down in a matter of hours.
The first act actually works pretty well – even the bad guys are somewhat likeable, and you’d be surprised how cute stuffed mice can be – but when Barry starts meddling, it all falls apart. Much of the movie’s action hinges on what the characters don’t say to each other – the Idiot Plot, as Roger Ebert calls it – and the rest is put into motion against all logic or reason. The introduction – and God help them, the re-introduction – of Tim’s cliché crazy ex-girlfriend is done by way of a crowbar, while Jemaine Clement’s narcissistic artist Kieran is largely wasted after making a fantastic first impression. For all the comedic potential the movie has in its grasp, it blows nearly every opportunity, and takes far too long (110 minutes, yeesh) doing it.
And yet, Steve Carell still manages to find a way through the muck with dignity intact, which is quite the feat under the circumstances. Ironically, his performance is what torpedoes everything his character does; he might be daffy, but he’s not dumb, and in real life would never do a fraction of the things he does here. (Answering someone else’s instant messages? Really?) He’s very likable, yes, but it turns out to be at the movie’s expense. Rudd, meanwhile, proves once again that he’s the funniest straight man working today, and credit must be given to the casting of Bruce Greenwood, who wisely opts for self-impressed callousness over sleazy schadenfreude junkie, as the host of the Dinner for Winners. Zack Galifianakis, though, is wasted as Barry’s co-worker and nemesis Therman.
Few people play the fool better than Carell, but “Dinner for Schmucks” wants it both ways, and it just doesn’t work. Indeed, none of Carell’s live action movies since the one-two punch of “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Little Miss Sunshine” have measured up, though his track record with animated movies in that time (“Over the Hedge,” “Horton Hears a Who,” “Despicable Me”) is quite good. Our suggestion: hook him up with Alexander Payne. That way he’ll finally get to be both funny and real.(2.5 / 5)