Thursday, August 5, 2010

"Dinner for Schmucks" Review

A confession: I am not the easiest person to make laugh. I’m like a comedy death-star, sitting impenetrably through most of what loosely passes as humor, but I am vulnerable to a very specific attack pattern. I also habitually see films on weekday afternoons, where it is not uncommon for attendance to be in the single digits. This is not the proper viewing experience for something like “Dinner for Schmucks.”

But be that as it may, its silences hung like ripe fruit throughout the overlong, often laugh-less endeavor. What I found probably most disappointing, though, was that the premise (you know, the title) is crammed into the last thirty minutes of a nearly two-hour film. The other eighty are spent mixing two of my least-favorite sub genres into a sleepy cocktail: workplace humor and romantic comedy.

I understand the former is presently in vogue, and perhaps because I so admire the BBC “Office,” and Mike Judge’s “Office Space,” more recent attempts at satirizing white-collar America have seemed, to me, incapable of pushing the envelope. It’s ironic that Ron Livingston, who played the agnostic hero of Judge’s film, plays his exact opposite in “Schmucks”—An unapologetic businessman. But unlike the corporate lackeys in “Office Space,” he is counterbalanced by a protagonist (Paul Rudd) who wants just as desperately to assimilate himself to that ideal. His character, Tim, is someone for whom promotion is the only worthy goal.

But what’s worse is that he repeatedly fumbles his way toward that goal. He is asked to attend a sort of inaugural dinner party, accompanied, as every guest will be, by a fascinatingly imbecilic personage—Enter Steve Carell as Barry, a bland, dopey catalyst for frustrating, obvious misunderstandings.

Had the plot remained so simple, there’s a good chance I would have enjoyed “Dinner for Schmucks.” The eponymous meal collects a compelling (and funny!) array of oddities, and the prevailing humor is decidedly absurdist. A better film would have built the entire second and third acts around this setting, but for over an hour we’re subjected to the simple ruination of Tim’s life at the hands of his new friend.

For example, by way of an incomprehensible instant message conversation with an overeager ex, Barry leads Tim’s girlfriend to suspect infidelity. Typically, this would be the type of comic scenario to employ double-entendre. Instead, Barry, at Tim’s computer, seems to purposely provide misinformation. He may be a simpleton, but the scene is indicative of a greater problem with his character—We don’t understand his thought process. He seems to be cunning when convenient, and unbelievably stupid when not.

Incident after incident reveals his destructive power over Tim’s life, and it becomes frustrating rather than funny that Tim, a man of some intelligence, is incapable of ridding himself of him. And it’s not just his love life. Through Barry’s aid he is repeatedly put in jeopardy of losing favor with the man that warranted him the promotion in the first place. Getting rid of Barry, by force if necessary, is the omnipresent, painfully obvious answer to each tiresome dilemma.

Then again, who knows. It’s difficult to predict the impact a full, laughing audience would have had on my opinion. I don’t think “Dinner for Schmucks” is an especially bad film as it stands—Just a languidly average one. Based not on humor, but originality, this localized remake of the French film, “The Dinner Game,” carries little merit. It doesn’t live up to its premise, and like Barry himself, quickly overstays its welcome.

It’s hapless, formulaic comedy with all the creativity of a targeting computer. And you don’t need one of those to blow up the death-star.


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