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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

Dinner for Schmucks (review)

Schmucks Is Schmucks

It’s not so much Dinner for Schmucks as it is Waiting for Dinner for Schmucks. You know, like Waiting for Godot, only in reverse. Because the schmucks start showing up right as the damn movie starts, and they never go away. It’s like a schmuck parade marching through your head for two hours. But the only even mildly amusing moment comes at the end, when we finally get to the damn dinner for schmucks, and the movie at last manages to ramp up the absurdity and dispense with the sentimentality. And then that lasts only ten minutes or so, and it’s back to exactly the same crap Hollywood has been trying to sell us for years, in which characters who have been behaving intolerably and disgustingly antisocially for two hours suddenly turn on the puppy-dog eyes, and we’re supposed to feel bad for them.
The same overall effect of Dinner for Schmucks could be achieved by intercutting Three Stooges shorts with YouTube videos of adorable kittens rolling around with baby bunnies, perhaps while a cute baby biting his own toes looks on. And then at the finale, using some CGI magic Curly’s lip suddenly quavers as he picks up a kitten, and we realize we’re supposed to now accept him as an actual human being instead of as a live-action cartoon. The Three Stooges on their own? Fine. Kitty videos on their own? Fine. But it takes a masterful filmmaker to blend them in any way that makes sense.

Jay Roach is not a masterful filmmaker. He did once manage to whip up some pure absurdity, minus the sap, his Austin Powers movies. But then he moved on to the likes of Meet the Parents and Meet the Fockers. Any time you can get Fockers into a movie title, you’re set. Or Schmucks. Look for The Fockers Meet the Schmucks, the hilarious and heartwarming family film coming Christmas 2012, and the circle will be complete, and the idiocracy will have arrived.

Don’t let hearing that Schmucks is based on the French film Le Diner de Cons mislead you into wondering if this might have a smidgen of value. This is about as arthouse foreign as Swiss Miss. It is not a deceptively genteel but deeply biting comedy of manners about human cruelty. It is Paul Rudd (Year One, I Love You, Man) as a corporate android getting kicked in the balls, and deservedly so, for two hours by Steve Carell (Despicable Me, Date Night) as a sweet dolt– no, wait, maybe he’s a dangerous sociopath– no, wait, he’s a sweet dolt after all, at which point Paul Rudd gets to live happily ever after, when really he deserves to be exiled to Siberia to live out the next forty years of his life lonely and miserable. See, Tim invites Barry to a dinner party/game Tim’s boss (Bruce Greenwood: Star Trek, National Treasure: Book of Secrets) at the Bank of Evil hosts every month. The jerks in suits compete to see who can bring along the biggest “idiot,” and if Tim wins, he gets a corner office. Hoorah! But the plan backfires when Barry shows up at Tim’s place a day early, and ends up throwing multiple wrenches into Tim’s life, because Barry is, it seems, completely unaware of how human beings interact with one another.

But it’s all okay because Tim ends up learning a lesson along the way. The lesson that Tim learns is, of course, “Don’t be mean to people.” We’re meant to believe that this is not a lesson Tim was capable of learning long ago but now, bizarrely, at the tender age of Asshhole About to Get That Corporate Promotion He’s Been Working as an Asshole to Get for Years, he suddenly has an epiphany? Bullshit. Mostly the movie wants us to feel sorry for Tim, who is the last person we should feel any sympathy for whatsoever. (That the very likeable Rudd is deployed as this character is perhaps the worst example of the depths of emotional manipulation to which the film will stoop.)

Even the film doesn’t seem to know whether Tim deserves our sympathy. It’s as confused about Tim as it is about Barry. Because Tim is a schmuck, you see. In case you didn’t grasp that, after the film has been pointing its finger and laughing not at Tim but at Barry for two hours, it’s Tim and his corporate cronies who are the real schmucks, Tim helpfully explains it for us. Except that for all the desperate meanness of this flick, Tim and his buddies are not ultimately on the receiving end of any genuine punishment for their schmuckiness. All the meanness is cast at the “weirdoes” — such as Barry and his boss at the IRS, a would-be mesmerist played with amusing cluelessness by Zach Galifianakis (Up in the Air, Youth in Revolt), who is only amusing within the context of the film because the movie treats him as the cartoon character he is, and no more invites us to feel sorry for him than the Road Runner cartoons invite us to feel sorry for Wile E. Coyote. (Ditto the ludicrous artist played by Jemaine Clement, who may be present to underline the theme Tim and his buddies create: It’s okay to be a schmuck if you’ve got lots of money.)

This is why the actual, far too brief dinner-party-for-schmucks scene within the film works: It’s a cartoon. It’s utterly ridiculous. It’s wildly nonsensical. Those are good things. But they cannot be said about the rest of the movie, which doesn’t seem to understand the Elmer Fudd was not a tragic hero, and never would have worked as one.


MPAA: rated PG-13 for sequences of crude and sexual content, some partial nudity and language

viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine
  • I haven’t seen the film yet, but, sadly, it seems you’ve exposed the exact flaws that I feared would be present. I said in another post of yours that I thought the film looked hilarious. In my defense, I was referring to the dinner party itself. I should have looked behind the curtain more.

  • JoshDM

    The Fockers Meet the Schmucks

    You mean The Schmuck Fockers?

    Also, there is another Fockers movie coming out, but I think you know that.

  • Mike D

    Or perhaps Schmuck the Fockers.

    There are just some movies that, when I see the previews while waiting for another movie to start, I know I am going to skip the movie, and that the real enjoyment will be reading MJ’s review.

  • bats :[

    Damn. And it has Paul Rudd in it, too…

  • Left_Wing_Fox

    But they cannot be said about the rest of the movie, which doesn’t seem to understand the Elmer Fudd was not a tragic hero, and never would have worked as one.

    Ouch.

  • stchivo

    This really struck with me as something I hate in movies, though I can’t seem to think of a another good example of this right now.

  • stchivo

    oops, I meant to include this quote:
    “characters who have been behaving intolerably and disgustingly antisocially for two hours suddenly turn on the puppy-dog eyes, and we’re supposed to feel bad for them.”

    This really struck with me as something I hate in movies, though I can’t seem to think of a another good example of this right now.

  • MaSch

    But they cannot be said about the rest of the movie, which doesn’t seem to understand the Elmer Fudd was not a tragic hero, and never would have worked as one.

    C’mon, Elmer’s “What have I done” moment in “What’s Opera, Doc?” is pretty touching – in a comedic, absurd way, of course.

    And aren’t Wile E. Coyote and Elmer Fudd Variations of the Sisyphus type, thereby representing essential existential longings and emptinesses all of us face? (C’mon, MaryAnn started with bringing existentialism to this debate.)

    However, the movie sounds rubbishy rubbish.

  • Kat

    Umm…am I a bad person for admitting that I actually *did* feel sorry for Wile E. Coyote and that I was constantly waiting for him to finally snag that obnoxious Road Runner once and for all? The same way that I wished that Tom would finally catch Jerry, whom I also found annoying? Maybe it’s because my favorite animals have tended to rank at the predator level (wolves, foxes, bats, cheetahs, etc.), but for some reason, I usually identified with them.

  • RogerBW

    stchivo, I think perhaps that this is a development of the canonical Hollywood approach to falling in love (they fight for two hours, then she suddenly swoons into his arms). Why bother to write actual developed characters when you can just sketch in the outlines?

    Human relationships are hard. Let’s go shopping.

  • Sara

    Glad I read this review before going to the movie.
    The Dinner Game–Le Diner de Cons (French movie) is clever, biting, “comedy of manners” is a favorite of mine and I feared the American version would dumb it down, do away with the wit, with the biting sarcasm, with all the clever stuff and it seems that’s the case.

    Perhaps the best thing would be to find a copy of The Dinner Game (French) and watch it. I’ve loaned mine out to so many friends I no longer have it. Time to order another copy from amazon. (It’s difficult to find.)

    I’ll skip the American Schmucks.

    Sara

  • J. J. Hunsecker

    An insightful review, but, like Kat, I felt Wile E. Coyote was a sympathetic character, too. Sure he was trying to kill the Road Runner, but it was only to sate his hunger, and not out of any malice. I felt for Wile E. because he was such an expressive character, especially when he registered despair as each contraption backfired on him. (Who hasn’t had a bad day where everything seems to go wrong?) The Road Runner, on the other hand, was a one dimensional character.

    However, Ms. Johanson might have been referring to the few cartoons where Wile E. Coyote was paired up against Bugs Bunny (i.e. “Operation Rabbit”). In those cartoons Wile E. was portrayed as an egotistical, condescending character who seriously underestimated Bugs. In those cartoons the coyote deserved his comeuppance.

  • Muzz

    Lucy Punch is in this. I’d almost check it out just for that. Almost. I hope it doesn’t slow her career down any.

  • MaryAnn

    I felt Wile E. Coyote was a sympathetic character, too.

    You might not have felt that way if the cartoons had felt the need to smack you in the head with all manner of cliches meant to force you to feel sympathy.

  • C’mon, Elmer’s “What have I done” moment in “What’s Opera, Doc?” is pretty touching – in a comedic, absurd way, of course.

    Poor Elmer never got his due as a dramatic character. I would have loved to have seen him play a more serious role like, say, the Grandfather in Ibsen’s The Wild Duck. Or Pontius Pilate in Life of Brian. Now there was a role he was born to play. ;-)

    You might not have felt that way if the cartoons had felt the need to smack you in the head with all manner of cliches meant to force you to feel sympathy.

    *Cough* Marley and Me *Cough*

    Okay, I’ll go ahead and smash my broken record…

  • Blank Frank

    I’m probably not gonna go see this so I won’t know for sure, but from the review, it sounds a bit like a comedy version of those horror movies that scold you for watching them. “Let’s laugh at these stupid people doing stupid things for two hours. Wait! Shame on Tim and his fellow bigwigs for exploiting these losers for their entertainment.”

    Am I missing something, or is the film really that hypocritical?

  • Left_Wing_Fox

    Poor Elmer never got his due as a dramatic character. I would have loved to have seen him play a more serious role like, say, the Grandfather in Ibsen’s The Wild Duck. Or Pontius Pilate in Life of Brian.

    Replacing Elmer Fudd for John Travolta in a looney-tunes remake of “Puwp Fwiction”. It writes itself.

    EF: You know what they caw a qwarter pownder with cheese in fwance?
    YS: No, what do they call a quarter pounder with cheese?
    EF: A Woyale with Cheese.
    YS: A Woyale with cheese?! Why those rassin’ frassin no good…

    The car shooting would be recreated with Daffy Duck and a creme pie, the part of Uma Thurman would be played by Bugs Bunny in drag. I’m trying to decide whether Porky Pig should replace Tarantino’s cameo for a drawn out comic substitution of his infamous line, or Tim Roth’s character, with Petunia as “Honey Bunny”.

  • MaryAnn

    Am I missing something, or is the film really that hypocritical?

    That’s pretty much it.

  • Samantha L.

    I get why you say this is something you’d skip, because it doesn’t have an intellectual plot line but that’s WHY someone should go see a movie like this. For the laughs, for the ‘lulz’, you know? Just to go laugh your head off. I sure did.

  • smarterthantherestofyou

    man is this really why people aren’t enjoying this film? because they’re getting wrapped up in all the ‘sympathy’ they’re supposed to have for the characters or whatever the hell you were talking about? what the hell is wrong with the way you all watch movies? just laugh at the comedic aspect of it, who gives a shit about the ethical treatment of FICTIONAL CHARACTERS

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