At one point in the play based upon Thomas Wolfe’s classic novel “Look Homeward Angel,” old man Gant says, “Merciful God! What a travesty!” I can’t remember why he said it, but that phrase kept running through my mind as I watched “Dinner for Schmucks,” an absolutely abysmal film starring Paul Rudd and Steve Carell. Once again the filmmakers have succeeded in creating an insultingly stupid, insufferably boring, and egregiously humorless debacle misleadingly billed as a “comedy.”
When the final list of worst film of the year is compiled, look for this completely worthless exercise in futile filmmaking to be near the top. All those who pay the full price to sit through it totally deserve the ensuing agony to which they will be subjected. Now, don’t say I failed to warn you.
In “Dinner for Schmucks,” Rudd plays Tim Conrad, an investment analyst with Fender Financial, where his innate talent for the business has caught the attention of Lance Fender (Bruce Greenwood), the CEO of the company. In fact, Tim’s performance at the office has been so impressive, that Lance is about to offer him a nice promotion on the condition that he fulfills one final requirement. He must participate in a unique competition at the company’s monthly dinner.
It seems that each month the firm’s brass assembles at Lance’s spacious mansion for a sumptuous meal followed by the evening’s bizarre entertainment. Each member of the firm is required to bring a guest to the dinner, but the catch is that each quest must boast an IQ equivalent to that of an idiot. And the colleague who brings the most mentally inept person to the dinner wins the grand prize of the evening.
When Tim is first invited to the dinner, he has no idea where to look for a suitable companion, but then fate moves its huge hand when Barry Speck (Carell) suddenly bounces off the hood of Tim’s Porsche. Barry works for the IRS and has no idea how to cross the street safely, but he does have a rather unique hobby. He collects dead mice, and his attention was focused on one when Ted hit him. When he’s not making taxpayers miserable, Barry plays at being a taxidermist.
But Barry stuffs only mice, and then he dresses them up and uses them to recreate famous works of art or historic occasions. His collection (He calls them his “mouse-terpieces.”) includes everything from representations of the Last Supper to Grant Wood’s American Gothic painting to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Who could be a more perfect subject for Ted to display at that weird dinner?
Before the two of them ever make it to the dinner, however, Barry throws a monkey wrench into one of Ted’s lucrative business deals and does his bumbling best to ruin his new friend’s romantic relationship with Julie (Stephanie Szostak). Instead of being a ticket for Ted’s promotion, Barry turns out to be the dinner guest from hell.
“Dinner for Schmucks” is actually a remake of the very successful, award-winning 1998 French film titled “Le Diner de Cons” (“The Dinner Game”) directed by Francis Veber, who wrote the stage play of the same name. I have seen neither that film nor the play, but I am willing to bet a stuffed mouse or two that both of them are far superior to the mess the American filmmakers have made of the story. It sure as hell couldn’t be any worse.
Midway through “Dinner for Schmucks,” I began to fear that I had somehow lost my sense of humor because I found absolutely nothing about it to be remotely funny. Well, maybe a stuffed mouse dressed as Jesus at The Last Supper might elicit a smile or two from some, but other than that, this movie presented nothing worthy of laughter.
I know that Carell has built up quite a following from his successful television series “The Office,” but I haven’t found him to be very effective on the big screen. I thought he flopped badly as Maxwell Smart in the film version of “Get Smart,” and although he was very funny as anchorman Evan Baxter in “Bruce Almighty,” he once again bombed in “Evan Almighty,” where he had to carry the movie.
Recently I have been watching the absolutely dreadful TV series titled “Last Comic Standing,” and the only reason I have been following it is to see whether the contestants improve any from week to week. Unfortunately they haven’t, but watching that show has led me to a kind of epiphany about comedians. I believe that the ones who try the hardest to be funny are the ones who fail the most miserably. Few things are more agonizing than being in the presence of people who think they are funny but really aren’t.
In addition to being saddled with a script devoid of humor, the main problem with “Dinner for Schmucks” is that Carell tries too hard to be funny, and it’s difficult to watch. Barry is a character that should be very funny, but Carell’s forced portrayal of him strips him of his comic potential.
Still another weakness in this film is that there is very little chemistry between Rudd and Carell. In order to make a film with two male leads work, the stars must be able to play off one another to elicit various emotions from the viewer. Think of Mel Gibson and Danny Glover in the “Lethal Weapons” films or Paul Newman and Robert Redford in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” or more recently Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson in “Wedding Crashers.” If you go back and watch any of these movies, you’ll see how poorly Rudd and Carell work together in this movie.
“Dinner for Schmucks” (Give it a 3 only for the mouse dressed as Jesus.) offers no food for thought or humor or anything else. In fact, it left a really bad taste in my mouth.