Jay Roach’s Dinner for Schmucks is probably as close to a truly edgy comedy as Hollywood in 2010 is probably capable of doing. In a way that is a compliment – in particular Steve Carrell brings a sort of nerve to a comic performance not seen since Jim Carrey in The Cable Guy. However, the movie does not make the leap into true black comedy and is content to go for a sweeter vibe. This is no The War of the Roses. That said, we are left with an effective comedy taking advantage of Paul Rudd’s enormous resources of Paul Rudd-ness and a wicked gallery of ummm … extraordinary people, but something a little maddeningly short of what could have been a real classic.
Tim Conrad is an investment banker in the Los Angeles wealth management game – who, like most of these types, is looking to get ahead. He suggests a brilliant idea to rope in a very important client to the president of his firm, and suddenly he is on the promotion fast track. However, first he has to attend a dinner with his future co-workers where they bring idiots to make fun of them. (idiots? more on that later) Now Rudd, who is one of the most effective actors in this sort of realm, projects goodness easily. He is pretty clearly not the Type A uberdouche that you expect with this personality type. He has a girlfriend he is in love with, and a life that he wants to move forward for most of the good, American Dream sort of reasons. As such, you gotta pay to play, right? Suffice to say, if the Tim (Rudd) wants to advance in his new job and secure a new client, the man has to find an idiot right quick. Suddenly deus ex machina comes to the scene as his Porsche hits a very oblivious Barry (Steve Carrell) and away we go.
Barry is … something. I am not sure if idiot or anything is a fair characterization of him, or if it is a mean spirited one. I mean, he has considerable talent at his hobby (indeed a montage of his works is shown in the opening credit) which I would not dream of spoiling. But he certainly is not book or street smart. He gets Switzerland and Sweden confused for one – and then the language the Swedish actually speak with the language Swedish muppets speak. He also has a bad habit of going through Tim’s stuff, and responding on Tim’s IM to a woman who has been stalking him. Where some of these misunderstandings take Tim’s life (his girl, his car) does not require Nostradamus to predict.
In the trailers for this movie, I thought that Carrell might over ham this sort of character up, but to his credit his performance falls just short of that. Carrell and Roach are able to manage Barry’s absolute, total cluelessness with absolute logic. Barry is never acting maliciously – and that’s what makes the comic consequences of what he does so painful. There is a lot cringeworthy here (in a good way) during these passages – the sorts of vivisection of manners that the Brits do especially well. Tim, being a good guy is in a conundrum – because while he clearly recognizes Barry’s goodness, the sheer magnitude of Barry’s missteps can sure add up. As the complications pile up (the stalker, the important client, Tim’s girlfriend walking out on him) Roach here consciously chooses to go a more genial, screwball route. The supporting players are a menagerie of weirdos, whether it be the curiously Russell Brand-like artist whom Tim’s girlfriend is curating, or Barry’s archrival (Zach Galifanakis) who has developed a skill in hypnosis.
Ultimately all of this is a setup for the dinner itself. Of course at this point, Tim does have regard for Barry, but still wants the promotion. The dinner is a terrific comic set piece, and the variety of guests is pretty darn imaginative. However, in the ending, the movie shows where it falls short of greatness. While we have this gallery of true absurdity around, the movie has cast its lot with Barry being kind of sweet, and so of course here it is required that Tim make a Capra-esque speech about who the REAL idiots are and whatnot. That Roach stopped just short of the finish line and went for a more conventional sort of tone for the finish makes the film more genial, but probably denies it greatness. That is a bit of a shame. Of course, for a summer Hollywood film with a couple of pretty high profile stars – taking this material in the darker direction might have just not flown with the test audiences or marketing types. I guess it’s like the British version of The Office versus the American one – the marketing premise is that Americans want something sweeter and more cuddly, even in its satire. I’m not sure that is the case.