Dumb Beyond Belief
Call me crazy, but when sitting down to watch a comedy called Dinner for Schmucks, I expect to see a lot more plate-passing and hors d’oeuvres than gags about the art world and psycho ex-girlfriends. Unfortunately, director Jay Roach’s latest movie is like an early-season episode of Hell’s Kitchen, where customers wait several hours for a meal that isn’t even well-prepared.
As with most movies this summer, I was drawn in by a good title and a great trailer. The premise: Paul Rudd stars as Tim, an investment banker who must invite the biggest idiot he can find to a monthly dinner at his boss’ house; if his moron is the most pathetic of the guests, Tim will get a big promotion. Enter Barry (Steve Carell), an IRS agent and amateur taxidermist whose greatest joy is creating rodent dioramas called “mousterpieces”. Sounds like a recipe for hilarity, right?
It would be, except that Roach and screenwriters David Guion and Michael Handelman fall face-first into the trap of the modern comedy by injecting the story with too many fluffy detours. Take, for instance, Tim’s girlfriend, Julie (Stephanie Szostak), and her burgeoning career as a manager/possible love interest for an eccentric artist named Kieran (Jermaine Clement); or Tim’s crazy ex, Darla (Lucy Punch), who blows through the movie in a tornado of off-putting violence; or Tim’s repeated attempts to land the account of a prominent Swiss businessman; or Barry’s rivalry with his boss, Therman (Zach Galifanakis).
There are a few other plot points I’m sure I’ve left out, but I can’t remember any of them. That’s a bad sign for a comedy, but it’s also symptomatic of what the genre has become.
A pretty good rule of thumb is that comedies should clock in at ninety minutes or less—brevity being the soul of wit, and all. But at just under two hours, Dinner for Schmucks buckles under the weight of its own padding. Too many premises that might have been funny in their own movie—or that aren’t, frankly, funny at all—are given far more attention than they deserve. The only way for a comedy to survive this much plot is to ensure that the humor, heart, and smarts are on point at least ninety percent of the time. Dinner for Schmucks' average is about thirty percent.
Roach and company make the pivotal mistake of assuming that the audience cares what happens to these characters outside of the titular dinner. After the gallery scene, the burglary scene, the IRS office scene, the apartment scenes, and several other scenes where people aren’t sitting down for a meal, the actual dinner for schmucks comes and goes in about twenty minutes. The movie is way off balance, in terms of both its set-ups and the way it treats its characters.
For example, how did an imbecile like Barry make it through taxidermy school and get hired by the IRS? The joke, I guess, is that the IRS is run and staffed by idiots; which is a shaky but cute one-off idea. But the movie makes the mistake of taking us to Barry’s workplace and introducing us to his boss; we see Therman pull up Tim’s tax records and run through some questionable filings, all the while trying to sell Tim a self-published book on mind control.
Here, as with several other points in the film, the film tries to have it both ways: Barry and Therman are painted as completely clueless eccentrics who are somehow savvy enough to have long careers in a technical field (another example of this hinky duality occurs when we’re asked to believe that Barry—who is, remember, a skilled taxidermist and by extension somewhat knowledgeable of animal physiology—doesn’t know what a clitoris is).
If you’re looking for a truly funny, truly moving unlikely-buddy comedy, stay home and watch Planes, Trains and Automobiles—the movie that Dinner for Schmucks wants so despearately to be. That film mines great humor from realistic characters who find themselves in wacky situations; and it moves along at a great pace, never dwelling on superfluous situations or taking its eye off the goal of its heroes.
I hope to see a return to the quick, funny comedy someday. It’s heartbreaking to think that I may be stuck wading through the vanilla swamp of I Love You, Man, Funny People, Get Him to the Greek, Hot Tub Time Machine, and Dinner for Schmucks for the rest of my life. At the very least, I’d like to see more comedies that live up to their titles. As it stands, Dinner for Schmucks is the biggest bait-and-switch since Jason Takes Manhattan.