Great comic pairings don’t come along often. Yet, Steve Carell and Paul Rudd strike a snappy chemistry as straight-man Tim Conrad (Rudd) to funnyman Barry Speck (Carell) in Dinner for Schmucks, an adaptation of Francis Veber’s César Award-winning Le Diner du Cons (1998).
Career-climber Tim join his boss and associates for a parlor-game-disguised-as-private-dinner. For the monthly contest, an elite group of businessmen dine at company president Lance Fender’s (Bruce Greenwood) mansion where its members invite the most idiotic person they can find. You’ve heard of “blaming the victim,” well here’s a concealed contest that’s more along the lines of “humiliate the geek.” Entering Tim’s world of economic high hopes is mouse taxidermist-artist-extraordinaire Barry, who attaches himself to Tim like a tic on a dog. Carell’s dentally altered character walks a fine line between innocent and intent as he accidentally but systematically upends Tim’s life.
It’s in this detailed fantasy world that we glimpse Barry’s gentle soul, however juvenile it might me. Barry’s misquote of a John Lennon song (“You may say I’m a dreamer but I’m not”) exposes the autistic nature of Barry’s social skills. He might be a “tornado of destruction” but the character never carries the malice associated with dark comedies.
Through a series of laugh-inducing attempts at helping Tim with his girlfriend troubles, Barry opens up countless comic possibilities. During an expensive luncheon between Tim and the German millionaire couple he seeks as clients, Barry unexpectedly shows up with Tim’s stalker ex-girlfriend Darla (played with kooky acuteness by Lucy Punch). The exchange of a cloth napkin with “I’m wet” written in lipstick is enough to ignite a chain of laughter that swells as the scene progresses when Tim’s would-be fiancée (Stephanie Szostak) arrives.
Director Jay Roach (Austin Powers) strategically builds toward the film’s promised climax dinner scene with a steady flow of physical and situational humor that goes over the top without alienating the audience. The inclusion of Ron Livingston (Office Space) as one of Tim’s unsavory business associates places the film in a specific world of irony that is reinforced with zingy supporting efforts by Zach Galifianakis and Jemaine Clement.
The reason to watch Dinner for Schmucks is to enjoy two great comedians working off one another in a vaudeville style that is as fresh today as when Laurel and Hardy did it decades ago. Here’s one Hollywood comedy that actually makes you laugh.
Dinner for Schmucks (PG-13) ★★★☆☆