Reviews & Writing

Monday, August 23, 2010

Dinner for Shmucks

This review was written by Ilan, a new contributor to Writing Wars, who we are delighted to have join our team. With his help, new posts will become much more frequently available for you guys to enjoy. Because of this, we would like to take this opportunity to thank him for his work. You should too. Enjoy.

Dinner for Schmucks
Junk Food or a Square Meal?
Ilan Tzitrin

 Dinner for Schmucks” is easy to deride. One may claim that it is about schmucks and has been made for the same demographic, or that this review is a comeback by an insulted intelligence, or that in a plethora of modern comedies that are at once superficial, overblown, only strenuously funny and generally artless, “Dinner for Schmucks” has found its deserved place. One may make all those claims for the sake of rhetoric, but, while serving as textbook blurbs, they wouldn’t be entirely accurate. To be sure, “Dinner” is often cursory and empty, but at times it is fun and amusing. Digging deep into its topsoil of mediocrity, one may find in the bedrock a semblance of a heart and purpose, if one looks hard enough indeed.

The movie borrows its premise from the French comedy “The Dinner Game”: the seniors of a company entertain themselves by hosting occasional dinners and to them inviting idiots – perhaps the titular schmucks – in order to laugh at their misfortunes. The actual dinner happens toward the end and is probably not central to the story, however; far more dominant is the journey of Tim (Paul Rudd), the protagonist, who is about to get his long sought-after promotion when he is informed by his superiors that he must attend the dinner and prove his worth. As fate would have it, Tim unwittingly knocks over Barry (Steve Carrell) as he is picking up a dead rat from the road, and, finding the ideal guest, he insists on making the dinner, despite his wife Julie’s (Stephanie Szostak) solemn protest. “Things happen for a reason,” Tim claims.

As two dimensional as most of its characters are, “Dinner for Schmucks” is a character piece first and foremost, and because the writing is only sporadically sharp, comedic success is mostly owed to the performances. The centerpiece of the roles is no doubt Steve Carrell’s Barry, the biggest schmuck, as it appears at first. Indeed, Carrel has a knack for playing schmucks; lest that sounded disparaging, he is a talented comedic actor that happens to excel in deadpan fools. While Barry is a slight change in the sense that he is a varied character that requires no deadpan, he most definitely is a first-rate fool. After all, he is absolutely clueless, not only being utterly unaware of the repercussions of any of his actions, but also proudly following the Einsteinian notion that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Amusingly, Barry has a number of pronounced quirks, such as collecting dead rats, dressing them up, and using them to emulate popular artwork, or misquoting – more precisely underquoting – lyrics and proverbs. Early into the movie he invokes John Lennon, “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not”; at the very end he claims, “A mind is a terrible thing”.

Another schmuck is Zack Galifianakis’ Therman, Barry’s boss, a bizarre IRS agent who claims to have mind control capabilities. Unsurprisingly, Galifianakis reprises his own deadpan talents in a role that is extraordinarily devoid of emotion. Two characters who are not invited to the dinner (but are schmucks nonetheless) are Jemanine Clemente’s Kieran, the self-obsessed artist for which Juli works, and Lucy Punch’s Darla, Tim’s long-forgotten one-night-stand who reappears at the worst time, kudos to Barry.

As mentioned, Barry is only the biggest dumbbell at first glance. The point of the movie is that the real schmucks are not the dinner guests but, contrarily, those who invite them. For instance, Tim comes off as an intelligent person, but after all is said and done, one gets the impression that his morality is inferior to that of the idiots and that he has trouble understanding logical consequences. In first manipulating Barry and then allowing for Barry’s own manipulations, Tim goes from striving and kempt to a human disaster. The self-dug hole in which he ends up by the end of the movie lacks common sense and deliberation.

The best scenes in “Dinner” happen when the writing steadies and the movie approaches some sort of realism; when it plays it straight, the punch lines tend to work and shreds of meaning linger. Regrettably, the movie frequently enters a surreal realm and becomes increasingly messy, invoking noise at the expense of humour. When the action onscreen becomes silly enough to transform straight characters into schmucks is when “Dinner” loses its touch. Yes, the implied thesis is that dimwits are ubiquitous, that real schmucks are not clear-cut, that one should not fault idiots like Barry as they are that way by design, and blame people like Tim who degenerate by choice. However, Tim is not an idiot by singular decisions and behaviour, just by his lack of foresight and his collective actions, and this is the way the writers should have handled his character.

“Dinner” is neither profane nor raunchy, a surprise if one were to compare by many concurrent comedies, but a fairly standard occurrence in director Jay Roach’s filmography, from “Austin Powers” to “Meet the Parents.” This relative cleanliness works neither to the film’s benefit, nor to its disadvantage; as mild are the technical achievements, of which there is nothing awe-inspiring or distracting. The movie’s true value comes from the casting of Steve Carrel, who lends some emotion to the character and the narrative, not to mention humour, perhaps affecting Tim’s character negatively in the short run but positively in the long. Living up to its title, “Dinner for Schmucks” is not a deep watch and is easy to deride, but one likeable character is what it takes to make it sporadically funny and pleasant enough.

Originally posted on Playmountain (

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