From the opening images of the film, with the familiar whimsy of "Fool On The Hill" underscoring loving close-ups of dioramas depicting happier days in a marriage, "Dinner For Schmucks" reveals itself as a movie as sad at its core as Christopher Nolan's "Inception." At the same time, "Schmucks" is broad farce that revolves around Barry (Steve Carell), a force of nature who accidentally unleashes some outrageous mayhem into the life of Tim (Paul Rudd), and it is very, very silly. The way Jay Roach manages to balance those seemingly opposite intents is what makes "Dinner For Schmucks" such a delight.
There won't be a lot of middle ground on this film, I don't think. It is a film that aims big, and so the few missteps it makes are really a matter of unfulfilled ambition more than anything else. In particular, the dinner itself is sort of an anti-climax. Even so, "Dinner For Schmucks" works as an oddball old-fashioned comedy, and it is a nice reminder of just how candy-slick the work of Jay Roach is.
The titular dinner is a rancid by-product of the scumbag corporate culture that Tim so desperately wants to be part of so that his girlfriend Julie (Stephanie Szostak) won't leave him. Tim wants to impress his boss Lance Fender (Bruce Greenwood), and one day, during what should be a routine meeting, Tim takes his shot and steps up... and it works. He gets Fender's attention. Greenwood, along with Larry Wilmore and Ron Livingston, projects exactly the right amount of smarm and insincerity to let you know right up front that we're going to be on the side of anyone who isn't one of these douchebags. They're rotten people, and to his credit, Tim sees through them right away. He still wants to get ahead, though, so he agrees to join them at their monthly dinner where each of them finds a complete and utter freak to bring as a guest, a comedy riff on Nancy Savoca's lovely-and-largely-forgotten "Dogfight."
Just as Tim finds himself in need of a schmuck, the Universe drops a doozy into his lap. Steve Carell plays Barry as a broken-hearted man with a childlike enthusiasm, and from the moment he meets Tim, things just seem to accelerate. Barry is delighted to suddenly have this new friend in his life, and Tim struggles to decide if he's going to take Barry to the dinner or not. Tim's having troubles with Julie, and Barry jumps in to help. What could easily be a "Three's Company"-like middle movement of the film is kept fresh because it goes so many weird and hilarious places. Everything Barry does is the result of genuinely wanting to help Tim. It's just that everything Barry does somehow ends up screwing things up for Tim even worse.
I love the supporting cast here, with Jemaine Clement, Zach Galifianakis, David Walliams, and Lucy Punch all turn in exemplary and ridiculous work. And I mean "ridiculous" in the good way. These people are fearlessly broad in this one, and yet the script and the direction keep pulling it back, grounding it in something real. Carell is terribly sweet here, but not saccharine. His character has a history that the film finds clever ways of revealing, and when the full magnitude of what happened to him becomes clear, it earns the film a lot more weight than I would have expected.
Ulitmately, "Dinner For Schmucks" is about coping mechanisms, the ways we look at the world around us and deal with it. Everyone in this film is presenting their particular coping mechanism, and it seems like most of the characters are hiding from the world, afraid of being hurt worse than they already have been. The idea that it is only when we have someone in our life who understands us that we start to finally heal is a warm one, and a big part of the last act of the film. It's a pretty pop cartoon, and the tech credits are every bit as slick as you'd expect from a Jay Roach film.
"Dinner For Schmucks" might not be to everyone's tastes, but it went down easy for me, and since I saw it several weeks ago, I've been interested in a second helping.
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