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.

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