Director Jay Roach is a sucker for movie titles that grab the audience. This is, after all, the man who brought us “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me” and “Meet the Fockers.” But those titles, titillating as they may be, precisely summed up those movies.
With his newest addition, “Dinner for Schmucks,” Roach may have missed the mark.
The word schmuck has an interesting place in American culture. To most non-Jews, it’s another Yiddish word that sounds funny and means just about nothing. Like schlemiel, or putz, all three of which are generally understood to mean “idiot” or “that thing my Jewish friend calls me.”
To Jews, though, especially the vanishing Yiddish-speaking community, schmuck is a vulgar, phallic-referencing insult.
So, we’ve got “Dinner for Schmucks,” a remake of a French comedy centering around a dinner party in which rich businessmen compete for who can bring the most idiotic guest. These guests — idiotic as they may be — are not schmucks. If anything, this lighthearted flick paints them as sympathetic fools, unaware of their own foibles.
A title doesn’t make a movie, but “Dinner for Schmucks” still struggles to stand on its own.
Tim (Paul Rudd) is climbing the corporate ladder in a financial firm. He’s got it all — a gorgeous girlfriend, a gigantic salary, a Porsche. To seal the deal of a new promotion, Tim’s invited to his boss’ “Dinner for Winners.” Or so these “winners” are told. He needs to find the biggest schlemiel (a better Yiddish pick) he can; luckily, he hits one with his car. Barry (Steve Carell) is an IRS worker and obsessive taxidermist who puts stuffed mice into historical dioramas.
Barry’s a match for dinner, but not before he all but accidentally destroys Tim’s life in a series of ridiculous mix-ups, miscommunications and often-hilarious situations. But Tim needs that promotion, and so he perseveres as his world crumbles under Barry’s bumbling destruction.
Carell, of “The Office” fame, is great, making Barry a character we all know — that idiot that can’t get anything right, but tries so hard we just can’t hate him. When Barry crashes Tim’s business lunch with an important Swiss investor, he asks, “Does the cheese come out of the cow with the holes already in it?”
Chuckle, chuckle, right?
“Dinner for Schmucks” works more on the strength of its giant cast of comedy stars than as a cohesive piece of film.
Zach Galifinakis pops up as the bearded mind reader who stole Barry’s wife. Jermaine Clement, of HBO’s “Flight of the Conchords,” is a hypersexual artist trying to seduce Tim’s girl.
By the time Barry and Tim finally make it to dinner, the schtick has worn a bit thin. Luckily, the collection of idiot guests liven things up and push the movie towards a satisfying end.
The idea at the core of “Dinner for Schmucks,” that regular guys would invite idiots to dinner just to make fun of them, is inherently cruel. The movie tries to come full circle with some emotional appeals (of course, Barry gets hurt, and of course, Roach wants us to feel for him), but the whole thing is so goofy that those moments fall flat.
“Dinner for Schmucks” is a funny movie. It’s hard not to laugh at Carell’s dead mouse diorama of Vincent Van Gogh, of which he says, “Everyone said to him, ‘You can’t be an artist, you only have one ear.’ And he said ‘I can’t hear you,’” but these gags can’t pull the whole thing together.
It comes off as a tchotchke, when it could’ve been a treasure.
(Justin Jacobs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)