Steve Carell has had quite a year. He’s already had a hit earlier in the year with Date Night, and a summer-smash followup with his role as Gru in the animated feature Despicable Me. He has also been fodder for entertainment websites for his announcement that he is leaving his hit television show The Office at the end of its next season. Carell’s newest film, Dinner for Schmucks, is hitting theaters wide this weekend and may be his most successful hit of the summer.
Carell’s turn as Barry is possibly the best performance of his career. Like his character Michael Scott, he brings the awkward-loser-idiot with enough earnestness to make him strangely real and likable. As he single-handedly destroys Tim’s (Paul Rudd) life, you not only laugh at him but understand why his “new friend” keeps him around.
It is too bad the rest of the film doesn’t have this charm . . .
We know exactly where Dinner for Schmucks is heading from the first frame of the film — it is all there in the trailer and in the title — but the film takes so excruciatingly long to get to the titular dinner that the film cannot be saved by the really funny climax. For a movie using a really great high-concept idea, it is mind-boggling that the screen writers and director didn’t have guts to make a really daring and interesting comedy, while instead giving the film so many standard and unsatisfying sub-plots to drag the film down. And to the film’s detriment, because we know where the film is heading, all I could think of nearing the hour mark was, “When the hell are they getting to this dinner?” Specifically, the romantic sub-plot between Tim and Julie (Stephanie Szostak) was incredibly bland and messy, yet wrapped up so nicely that it defied all believability (and for a movie where a psychic holds a séance with a lobster, that is saying something . . .).
Carell and Rudd are surrounded by very notable comedians who are known for great performances in other things. Jemaine Clement (from The Flight of the Conchords fame) plays a satanic-ish artist, but he brings enough of a straight-face to be enjoyable. Zach Galifianakis (who surprisingly gets third billing on this film even though he is barely in it), on the other hand, is incredibly mis-used and actually pretty bad. I’m not going to blame Galifianakis, because I think he is a really talented comedian, but the role (like many in the film) is too one-note and too other-worldly to bring anything real to the table. Come to think of it, there are far more “schmucks” in the real world in this film than at the actual dinner. It must not have been very hard to make selections.
I can’t say that I’m terribly disappointed by Dinner for Schmucks, but I have to say this could have been a much better film by trimming some of the first hour, adding a little more depth to the romantic plot (or, better yet, totally scrapping it) and focusing more on the dinner. I understand that the original French film, The Dinner Game, completely takes place over a single dinner, and this intrigues me, considering the problems of Dinner for Schmucks. I can’t speak for the original, but this certainly does seem to extend a trend in many Hollywood remakes, which substitutes innovation for something more middle-of-the-road and recognizable.