Hey, it’s Blockbluster, our seasonal feature in which Benjamin Sutton and Henry Stewart play dumb to find out during which sort of movies regular people all over the country are eating haunted lobster. This week they invite each other to Jay Roach’s Dinner for Schmucks.
So, Stewart, Dinner for Schmucks wasn’t as utterly tasteless as I’d expected given how low Jay Roach has managed to set the bar over the course of his two big franchises, Austin Powers and Meet the Parents/Fockers. (And in light of our colleague Michael Joshua Rowin’s adroit review) What I found most disappointing was actually the thing I was most looking forward to: Zach Galifianakis. After stealing last summer’s funnier and more offensive The Hangover, his mind-controlling IRS agent in Schmucks was this film’s second least funny character.
The most obsessively unamusing, Paul Rudd’s financial analyst Tim, admittedly gets stuck with the straight man schtick, but even his scenes of schmuckiness are queasily stiff—another lesson not learned from The Hangover: put the normal guy to sleep for the whole film. Of course that would impeded much of the bromance, misogyny and infantilism, right? Because whether schmucks or sleazy businessmen, it seems like nothing grosses our psychically prepubescent protags out more than sex. The film takes a shock therapy approach to sensuality, positing the overly libidinous artist Kieran—hilarious Jemaine Clement of Flight of the Conchords, playing an unleashed artsy id not unlike Russel Brand in Forgetting Sarah Marchall and Get Him to the Greek or Vinnie Jones in (Untitled)—and shamed-into-sexlessness Barry (Steve Carell) as the extremes between which Tim must find a mature middle ground.
Apparently that looks like cautious and unironic earnestness, like when he tells his gallery director girlfriend Julie (Stephanie Szostak) why he likes her as if reciting a Hallmark greeting card memorized when he was twelve: “You’re stunning, and you’re smart.” (Paul Rudd doing Michael Cera? What the schmuck is this?) Julie, on the run for most of Dinner due to Tim’s only partially misconstrued douchiness, might have offered a more reasonable model of adult sexuality. Instead, Tim’s one-night-stand Darla (Lucy Punch) reinforces the film’s fears of monstrous (i.e. healthy) sexualities with her taste for role-play and Bruno-caliber S&M. There may be more jokes about the acute sexual shame of being a full-fledged adult in Schmucks than any other sort.
Except perhaps all the quips of class conflict, pushed to even greater extremes than in the French original, Le dîner de cons (1998). As you noted after our screening, moments like Swiss billionaire Muëller’s (David Walliams) Dr. Evil-ish delight, “How I enjoy laughing at the misfortune of others,” make the rich-on-poor subtext so not subtextual that it loses its sting. Still, I enjoyed Schmucks’ deconstruction of white-collar culture (the presence of Office Space star Ron Livingston is telling). Tim’s assistant Susana (Kristen Schaal), though she wants so badly for them to move up from the lowly sixth floor, which she says smells of cabbage, also sees right through his middle-management masquerade: “I mean, your apartment, your car; you’re overextending yourself.” When Tim seems to be on the verge of a promotion—the only caveat being his bringing a trophy idiot (Carell) to the big boss’s (Bruce Greenwood) monthly dinner—a would-be colleague remarks: “You’re gonna need a better watch.” In the fantasy ending (spoiler?), presented by Barry in a series of his taxidermy mouse dioramas, Tim is happily working in arts administration, completing the film’s shrugging off of bureaucratic and corporate lifestyles. What do you think, Stewart, will Schmucks inspire millions of Americans to leave their office park lives for loftier dreams?
Sutton, I think Schmucks is meant to be a comic fantasy to mollify the schmucks in the audience, still apprehensive about their long-term unemployment. Did you notice that Sullivan’s Travels was playing at the rep house in the background of Rudd and Carell’s meet cute? People who have jobs, like the double-underlined-bad Muëller, are all really mean. And bad. (They close factories! They don’t care about radioactive waste!) And so it’s quitting his job at the end that makes Rudd able, finally, to be the person that his girlfriend knows (and not the one she doesn’t know)—the one that she loves. Once she loses her job, too, in that final scene, you know they’ll finally be able to be happy together. Being unemployed is actually really great, Sutton! It frees you up to be your naturally happy self.
You see this kind of thinking in movies, and the popular culture in general, all the time: that it’s actually really hard to be rich. You know, because mo’ money mo’ problems? But that’s just a bullshit line billionaire studio heads feed the poor so they (we?) won’t feel so bad about their inability to buy groceries. It’s tough to be rich? Meh, I’ll take my chances, thanks.
That said, Dinner for Schmucks biggest practical problem—after its portrayal of women as idealistic nags, mush-faced psycho-stalkers or grating, mush-faced secretaries—is that its sympathies are all confused. Whenever some farcical bad-turn befalls Paul Rudd, we ought to cheer at the unscrupulous banker getting his comeuppance. But it’s always because of some idiotic mistake on the part of Carell, so we end up sympathizing with Rudd at the expense of Carell, who ought to be on the receiving end of the audience’s compassion instead. It’s like Roach is afraid to make either one unsympathetic…though he does let Rudd say, “I, for one, am glad [the CIA] is there!” (Why not, “Blackwater’s methods may be controversial, but they sure do get the job done”?)
In contrast, Francis Veber knew that we had to dislike Thierry Lhermitte in the original, especially to be moved or convinced by his eventual reversal. We snicker at Jacques Villeret’s brainlessness because it gives the bad man his just desert. Here, though, it’s hard to ever really feel anything for these characters—they just feel like Hollywood sketches, so slightly sympathetic-and-not that they really feel like neither.
Well, except maybe Carell, who almost breaks your heart, at least in a handful of scenes. Schmucks turned out to slightly surpass the low expectations with which I went into it, only thanks to Carell, really. I haven’t seen, or heard good things, about any of his recent star vehicles, but here he was just about as good as he is on The Office (where he won’t be for long). It’s the character’s naïveté and irrational anxieties that make us laugh, Sutton, but it’s his nearly unparalleled sincerity and vulnerability that make him so damn endearing. If only the movie he’s in hadn’t been written and directed by a bunch of cons—oo, pardon my French, Ben.
Super Special Blockbluster Bonus: Zach Galifianakis interviews Steve Carell on his hilarious talk show, Between Two Ferns