Dinner For Schmucks: It’s Hard To Laugh When You’re Cringing This Hard
There’s a fine line between awkward and cringe-worthy. Dinner For Schmucks sprints past awkward at about the 15 minute mark, eventually even leaving cringe-worthy in the dust. At times, I twisted in my chair and wanted to look away. By the time the film settles down again and finds its heart, it was too late—it had alienated me by causing anxiety instead of laughter in big scenes. Steve Carell does a marvelous job trying to keep the film alive, and Barry is a terrific comic creation. He comes very close to saving the film down the stretch singlehandedly. Jay Roach directed Meet the Parents, one of the best awkward comedies of this generation, but here he has a scenario that is difficult to relate to or find the humanity in. If this scenarios were moments in life we recognize, maybe we could tolerate the discomfort. Instead, it often grows too cartoony, it punishes its characters, and we’re left with a dinner that gives us several good bites but never fully satisfies.
Tim (Paul Rudd) is a nice guy trying to get ahead in a heartless corporate world. After making a strong pitch at a business meeting meeting, his boss (Bruce Greenwood) and his lackeys (Ron Livingston and Larry Wilmore) call him into their office. The available upper-level position will be his, with one catch: every month or so, they find a huge idiot and bring him or her to dinner with them so they can make fun of him… if Tim can find an impressive idiot to bring with him, the job is his. His girlfriend (Stephanie Szostak) insists that he say no to this cruel practice. Then, on his way to work, he literally runs into Barry (Steve Carell). Barry works for the IRS, and his hobby is mouse taxidermy– he creates complex dioramas with little mice dressed as humans, which he calls “mousterpieces.” Everything he does is stupid. Perfect, right? Wrong. He starts to destroy everything Tim has worked for with his well-meaning behavior.
Barry could have been a truly annoying concoction had it been played by anyone other than Steve Carell. No one can capture the heart and innocence in an idiotic character better than Carell, who outdoes his bumbling boss Michael Scott from The Office here. Everything Barry does is dumb, yet somehow Carell makes it compelling with his sheer commitment to the film. The other idiots also shine: Zach Galifianakis as Barry’s co-worker who claims to be able to control minds gets laughs, because Galifianakis could get laughs reading the phone book. Tim’s girlfriend is an art curator, and her main artist, Kiril, as played by Jemaine Clement, is a wonderful send-up of the self-absorbed modern performance artist. Other smaller roles played by Chris O’Dowd and Octavia Spencer at the dinner itself get chuckles as well.
The problem is while individual elements work, the film on the whole doesn’t. Paul Rudd is wasted when playing a nice guy leading role, and while he’s been restrained in films like I Love You Man and Role Models by being forced to the leading guy plotline, here all traces of his personality have been eliminated. The main point of the film, it seems, is to make fun of Barry while watching Tim suffer– not a pleasant purpose. Barry at one point unintentionally brings a jilted ex to Tim’s apartment, played wildly over-the-top in an unlikable performance by Lucy Punch… and then, at Tim’s most important business meeting, Barry brings the ex. It’s the most uncomfortable sequence of film I’ve watched since the flaying in The Passion of the Christ. Jay Roach mastered the art of discomfort with Meet the Parents, which had me cringing but howling, but that movie didn’t mock its characters and it had a familiar scenario. Here, we have some inspired lunatics but no good framework, and any satire of corporate America is completely shelved in favor of the schmucks. This dinner gets so uncomfortable, I wanted to excuse myself from the table.
Note: if awkward comedy is your bread and butter, go seek out Cyrus, a far superior film that finds huge laughs in the discomfort.