I didn’t plan to write a Dinner for Schmucks review. With a dumb title and a lame “high-concept” premise (Paul Rudd has to find a schmuck to take to his boss’s annual, make-fun-of-schmucks dinner), but a cast of almost every likable, comedic actor in Hollywood (Rudd, Steve Carell, Jemaine Clement, Zach Galifianakis, Ron Livingston, etc.), I figured it’d make for light entertainment; a few chuckles and a pleasant way to spend 90 minutes. Basically, the same thing I got with Get Him to the Greek, Predators, and to a slightly lesser extent, A-Team. Mild, unmemorable entertainment. Not life changing, but time passing.
As it turned out, I was so surprised by what I got, I couldn’t help but write about it. Boy did I hate this movie.
The script, based on the 1998 French film, Le Diner de Cons, felt like it was written in 1935. I understand it was meant to be a farce, but everything was so ridiculously theatrical and over the top, it was like watching a badly-translated Mexican sitcom from the 70s. And I don’t mean their nice sight gags, like the guy with a fly swatter chasing around bee man, (the visual humor of Dinner for Schmucks‘ opening credits, with Steve Carell’s character painting his stuffed mice, was the funniest of the few funny moments of the movie), I mean the overwhelming shrillness, the buffonery, the cartoonish sexuality and face licking (not exaggerating here, there was face licking). It was all over-the-top, groan-worthy camp, like a freshman drama club student trying to include the “wackiest” thing he could think of every five seconds.
A paint-by-numbers script isn’t necessarily the kiss of death for a film like this. There’s a finite number of plots in the world and that’s fine. There are only so many ways you can buck convention before you end up with two dyslexic mimes beer bonging badger semen. I get that. But I Love You, Man had a pretty basic script too. As did The Hangover, Wedding Crashers, Old School, Road Trip, Baby Mama, Pineapple Express, etc., all of which were a thousand times funnier than Dinner for Schmucks. The problem with Dinner for Schmucks wasn’t the basic premise itself, it was that all of the supposed humor relied on your acceptance of their tired, asinine plot points. If the script had given these actors a little room to screw around (and to be fair, Carell and Galifianakis do squeeze blood from a stone a couple times), it might’ve been an enjoyable experience.
Instead, it was retarded plot twist after retarded plot twist. We’re asked to accept that Steve Carell’s character is buffoonish on a level that would make later-seasons Homer Simpson look like Steven Hawking. At one point, after a preposterous sequence of events that has Carell’s character trash Paul Rudd’s apartment through a mistaken identity involving a picture of a butt and Rudd’s psychotic stalker one-night-stand (dude… don’t ask), Carell and Rudd wind up in Carell’s office at the IRS. They need Carell’s co-worker, Zach Galifianakis, to help them find an address (at least that’s what we’re told — seems like Carell could just look it up himself seeing as how they do basically the same job, but whatever). An address. That’s it. Instead, in about five minutes of screen time, Galifianakis’ character:
- Is revealed to be an infomercial psychic
- Convinces Carell’s character that he has paralyzed him with his mind
- Finds errors in Paul Rudd’s tax return
- Threatens Paul Rudd over and over with an IRS audit
- Demands that Carell’s character share his pudding
- Is caught kissing Carell’s ex-wife.
Rudd and Carell never get the address for which they came but leave anyway for some reason. Does that sound obnoxious to you? Because it is. Instead of beginning with a wild plot point and then sort of dialing it down to lure you back in (like say, Elf), it’s just one over-the-top piece of wackiness on top of the next, building up to one giant tower of pointlessness. Everything is so exhaustingly contrived, it’s not just boring, it’s actually frustrating to watch. It only gets boring later, once you purposely check out to avoid being pissed off.
Let’s see, how many hokey, Three’s Company clichés can they throw at the wall here…
- Mistaken identity?
- A cell phone mix-up leading to hijinks?
- The clingy, psycho ex ruining the protagonist’s relationship?
- Girlfriend leaving straitlaced guy for free-spirited artist?
- An innocent misunderstanding wherein something innocuous is mistaken for infidelity?
- A cruel bet made at a stranger’s expense?
- …that the stranger finds out about only after you’ve grown close?
- An Important Business Meeting with an Important Foreign Businessman that the protagonist’s job depends on?
Check, check, and double check on those, plus countless other ones whose memory I’ve no doubt repressed.
Clichés are impossible to avoid completely, but there a few ways to deal with them. You could include them, but acknowledge them as clichés of the genre and have fun with them in a self-aware way (see: Kick-Ass, Spider-Man 2, Iron Man, Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant). Keep a few of them, but incorporate them in a very grounded, very believable way (I Love You, Man). Or, just not have so f*cking many of them that I resort to cataloging just to keep from stabbing myself in the eye. It wasn’t just that Dinner for Schmucks had clichés, it was that it was totally reliant on them for most of the humor. Hijinks! Hijinks! Hijinks! like junior high dinner theater.
Preposterousness can work in comedy (see: South Park), but not when the humor always relies on the situation’s believability. For example, at one point, Paul Rudd and Steve Carell are leaving a restaurant in Rudd’s car after a wild lunch with Foreign Businessman and Psycho Ex. Psycho Ex chases them outside, picks up a pole and starts smashing up Rudd’s car with it. She smashes his headlights, his rearview mirrors, his back window, and stabs the pointy tip through Rudd’s roof. All the while, Paul Rudd sits in the driver’s seat with his keys in the ignition, doing nothing. The entire time, all I can think is, “Why wouldn’t you just drive away?” There is nothing keeping him from driving away.
It’s not that I’m refusing to suspend disbelief, it’s just that the solution the character is avoiding is so OBVIOUS that it can’t be ignored. It’s just bad writing. And anyway, what’s the payoff, the punchline we get to after all that plot work and suspended disbelief? A girl smashing a guy’s car? Meh. Double meh.
Other lines that were supposed to be funny:
- “There’s no ‘me’ in ‘mean.’”
- “Switzerland. I love your cheese. With the holes… I’ve always wondered, does the cheese come out of the cow with the holes already in it?”
- “They say when life gives you lemon, make lemonade. But what if you don’t have any water or sugar? Just eat the lemons, I guess. But the rinds will give you diarrhea! So mama mia, papa pia — oh, hi, Tim!”
Or how about the time Paul Rudd tells Steve Carell to “stay in the chair,” so Steve Carell LITERALLY HOLDS THE CHAIR UP TO HIS BUTT while he leaves the apartment to go “save brunch?”
If that doesn’t strike you as an idiotic plot point, well then this is the movie for you.
Grade: F (I can’t give it better, as much as I want to. I actually left the theater about five minutes after Jeff Dunham showed up. And I stayed for all of Last Airbender, which was at least a D or D-).
Post-Script: Plenty of people whose opinion I generally respect have enjoyed this movie. I don’t see it, but there you go. Since it was commenter Pauly Dangerously who saw it and liked it and suggested we see this, we’ll have him on the Frotcast to represent the opposing view point. Send your counter arguments to him.