Comedy is an abusive lover. Sure, it might seem like a dream at first! All the funniest people you can think of packed into one movie, every bit part overstuffed with talent, with a premise idiotic but open-ended enough to let them all spin situational straw into comedy gold. Like Rumpelstiltskin! How romantic! Then Rumpelstiltskin steals your $10 and pushes you down the stairs and tells you that you were asking for it. Which, you know, you kind of were.
The advance screening of Dinner for Schmucks opened with a “performance” by a local improv troupe. This was not a good sign. The improvisers pulled sluggish, reluctant “volunteers” from the audience and made them “tell” an improvised “story” about separating “Chinese twins” (I guess they meant Siamese?). Being a pragmatist who does not believe in dark sorcery, I had no idea that the evening could actually go downhill from there. Oh, me! Naive yesterday me.
The cast of Dinner for Schmucks is like porno for comedy nerds. Paul Rudd (utterly uncharming for the first time in human history) plays Tim Conrad, an ambitious but frustrated financial analyst at a big firm staffed by dickheads (Ron Livingston, Nick Kroll, The Daily Show’s Larry Wilmore, Little Britain’s David Walliams)—the kind of men who say sentences about “dividends” and “deliverables” and bang their secretaries (Kristen Schaal) while playing squash and eating finger sandwiches and throwing paperweights at their small, brown menservants. Every month, the CEO hosts a dinner party where each guest brings the most embarrassing idiot he can find (Steve Carell, Zach Galifianakis, Jemaine Clement, the IT Crowd’s Chris O’Dowd), everyone makes fun of them, and all the dickheads high-five.
Tim is up for a big promotion and needs to find an award-winning schmuck for his inaugural dinner party. Luckily, he hits Barry Speck (Carell)—a lonely IRS agent who builds elaborate and completely charming dioramas featuring taxidermied mice—with his Porsche and brings him home. Then Barry proceeds to systematically but unintentionally ruin Tim’s life. I chuckled once—ONCE—at Barry’s complete sincerity when he announces, in the thick of an impromptu history lecture, “People said you can’t fly a kite in a rainstorm. And Ben Franklin said, ‘Yes you can. If you have an electric kite.’” Also, Jemaine Clement would be funny in a vegetative state.
It’s clear that Dinner for Schmucks is going for a Meet the Parents–style typhoon of misery (Parents and Schmucks were both directed by Jay Roach), but the series of misfortunes that befall Tim are more mean than funny and too contrived to be outrageous. Which is a shame, because Dinner for Schmucks’ premise—smug, spiteful corporate executives exploiting and humiliating the common man not just for money, but for sport—is a ripe one for a farce. And the cast, an international cabal of funny people, could have really done something with it. Too bad they just punched us in the face instead. I mean, it’s nothing. I’m fine. I ran into a door. (Sob.)