Loosely based on French comedy-of-misunderstanding mini-industry Francis Veber's The Dinner Game, Dinner for Schmucks takes as its premise a banquet in which corporate honchos bring along eccentric morons for the purpose of behind-the-back mockery, eventually giving to the biggest idiot a backhanded award for "Most Extraordinary Person." In essence it's a metaphor for the very subgenre the film falls into, in which stupidity is made the butt of countless jokes while in the end championed for representing a gentle and undervalued simplicity.
Since it tsk-tsks the banquet but revels in idiocy, does that make Schmucks hypocritical? Maybe, but Steve Carrell's turn as Barry, an annoying dolt with savant expertise in historical dioramas featuring taxidermy'd mice (created with great wit by the Chiodo Brothers), is pathetic to an almost otherworldly degree: this is a character who doesn't know the meaning of the word "curate." In the tradition of The Jerk and Dumb and Dumber, he's movie-stupid, which makes him completely unreal—the only recognizable moment comes when we realize Barry is "that guy" who screams into his cellphone in public—but really just gives director Jay Roach (well-versed in squirm-inducing comedy from Meet the Parents and Meet the Fockers) and screenwriters David Guion and Michael Handelman leeway to ramp up the goonish behavior of a gallery of freaks. Barry tortures Paul Rudd's ladder-climbing financial analyst Tim—who wants to use his new "friend" to win favor at boss Bruce Greenwood's cruel feast—with clutzy obliviousness and social inappropriateness, but close relatives and rivals include Jemaine Clement as a pompous British shock artist who dresses as a libertine satyr, Lucy Punch as a nymphomaniacal former lover with sadomasochistic tendencies, and Zach Galifianakis as a cuckolding IRS mind-control master.
Unlike, say, Idiocracy's satire of prideful American ignorance and sloth, Schmucks employs its geeks for moralistic, gag-a-minute relentlessness. It's a fine strategy, if forgettable. Clement's performance is just a knock-off of Russell Brand's Aldous Snow, but the other actors are game (Jeff Dunham goes mostly unused, thank God, as one of the dinner contestants), with Galifianakis pulling off a remarkable bit of physical comedy when his creepy mental wizard goes from beet red to pale white in a single take. Most of the jokes revolve around Barry's language mangling and well-intentioned humiliation of Tim—increasing in pitch up to a climax involving a fencing duel, a finger-chewing bird of prey, and a burning mansion—which makes it all the more unlikely that Rudd should be the one to pull the film together. Back in the day comedy duos would split their takes 60-40, the straight man earning more because of his rarer, if less appreciated, talents. With I Love You, Man and now Schmucks, Rudd has fast become the best put-upon nice guy in Hollywood, but instead of a pay raise perhaps he should be allowed to unleash his under-utilized nuttiness in a leading role and not the odd Apatow-handed cameo. Here his ability to suffer the Barry-caused chaos sells Tim's predictable switch to the side of the underdog, but it's mostly a thankless task. Had Rudd and Carrell's roles been reversed Schmucks might have been truly, and much more humorously, off-the-wall.
Opens July 30