Monday, August 2, 2010

Dinner for Schmucks (2010)

After viewing director Jay Roach’s Dinner for Schmucks, The Movie Gal dubbed the comedy “the most bipolar movie” she’d ever seen, and that essentially sums it up – Schmucks is hilariously malicious, the kind of film that beats its characters to a pulp, then points its finger and laughs. You’re supposed to be laughing too, but you may also find yourself shying away, averting your eyes while Schmucks continues to elbow you in the ribs, and laugh obnoxiously in your ear.

It’s an awkward and manipulative comedy style that star Steve Carell is quite familiar with, having traversed these volatile comedic waters in The 40 Year Old Virgin and the earlier seasons of The Office. And quite frankly, it is a brand that suits him well. Carell has a unique knack for empathetic, erstwhile annoyance. He’s the kind of man who can play an absolute idiot, and still manage to keep you on his side. And that’s exactly what he needed to do to make Schmucks a winner.

For the most part he succeeds. Playing a tax man/taxidermist with a pension for dead rodents, Carell’s Barry is really just a scorned and lonely Los Angelino looking for kinship. He thinks he finds it in Tim (Paul Rudd), an ambitious and somewhat schmucky businessman who runs over Barry with his Porsche. After realizing Barry is an odd and not entirely present individual, Tim invites Barry to a very special dinner… for idiots.

Tim’s boss holds a monthly dinner where he and his slimiest underlings invite unfortunate souls to be unknowingly mocked and ridiculed. Tim wants to rise up in the ranks, and this dinner is his opportunity. Barry is his opportunity. So Tim takes Barry in for all the wrong reasons, and Barry systematically destroys his life.

Schmucks is of course “inspired by” the 1998 movie Le dinner de cons, a Francis Veber film said by many people to be almost infallible. But it doesn’t star Steve Carell or Paul Rudd, so here we are.

It’s easy to enter Schmucks with premeditated venom. On the face of things, this is just another soulless Hollywood cash-cow looking to make big bucks off a previous film’s success. But Schmucks is also smartly put together. Rudd is perhaps Hollywood’s most affably harmless leading man. He’s so likeable that he can play the biggest jerk in the least likeable soulless Hollywood cash-cow, and still get you on his (and the film’s) team.

He’s supported by a wide range of varying popular comedians. Zach Galifianakis plays Barry’s nemesis, a co-worker that dominates him with “mind control”. Kiwi funnyman Jermaine Clement (Flight of the Conchords) plays Tim’s nemesis, a bizarrely sexual, artistic eccentric who works with Tim’s adorable girlfriend Julie (Stephanie Szostak). They even toss Ron Livingston (Office Space) in for good, schmucky-measure.

But best of all is Carell.  In a role that seemingly asks him to devolve, Carell finds complexity. He’s mirthful. He’s painful. He’s ludicrous and yet understandable. He’s the socially awkward weirdo we all want to avoid, and he manages to show us both why we do, and why we shouldn’t.

But that doesn’t mean we want to adopt him. Perhaps the wisest decision Schmucks makes is the choice to not pull punches. This is a studio flick, and probably isn’t as edgy as its French counterpart. But this is still a comedy with stakes, and one that manages to be prickly without being needlessly cruel.

Tim dubs Barry a “tornado of destruction”, and he is just that. He may mean well, and he may even help you grow as a person, or pull your life together in the end. But Barry himself never changes. For him, growth is unattainable. His life will never really come together. He can never truly be anything but a lost cause.

Thus, the Movie Gal’s “bipolar” reaction. Overlooking some pretty blatant missteps, Schmucks is both surprisingly enjoyable, and un-enjoyable for unexpected reasons. Whereas this might look like a cheesy, brain-dead flick, writers David Guion and Michael Handelman (the duo behind 2006’s Zach Braff dud The Ex, which I haven’t seen) have strung together a competent, funny and memorable script. “I lost her clitoris” Barry at one point confesses. “I thought I found it under the couch. But that was just a piece of used chewing gum.”

Director Roach helmed the Austin Powers and Meet the Parents flicks. Schmucks can be as crude as the prior, and awkward as the latter. It isn’t as good as either franchise at its peak, or as bad as their respective valleys, but generally fits comfortably in between. Frankly, I expected a lot worse.

Updated Summer Blockbuster Smackdown Standings:

1.) Inception
2.) Toy Story 3
3.) Despicable Me
4.) Salt
5.) Dinner for Schmucks
6.) The A-Team
7.) Iron Man 2
8.) Get Him to the Greek
9.) Knight and Day
10.) Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

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