The delivery of a joke is just as important as the joke if not more so. We categorize comedy as “dry”, “blue”, “dark” etc. because the effectiveness of the joke differs depending on the delivery. It’s a simple concept and shouldn’t need stating, but someone should have told director Jay Roach when he signed on to do Dinner for Schmucks. The film is ostensibly a dark comedy about a man so desperate for a promotion that he’s willing to amuse his evil corporate superiors by humiliating a gullible stranger. Roach is an unremarkable director who has managed to be at the helm of major hits like the Austin Powers franchise and the first two Meet the Parents movies. In his hands, a dark, offbeat comedy becomes a scattershot approach that sometimes gets a big laugh and other times leaves the audience wondering how someone could make a film so tone deaf that it makes a kooky character come off like a serial killer.
Tim (Paul Rudd) desperately wants a promotion and manages to get on his bosses’ radar by bringing them an account that could possibly net the company hundreds of millions of dollars. His final “test” is to bring the biggest idiot he can find to a dinner hosted by the ass-hole bosses. If his idiot is the most impressive, then he should be able to grab the promotion.
As fate would have it, Tim accidentally runs over Barry (Steve Carell) and Tim realizes he may have struck gold by finding someone who doesn’t understand quotations, spouts malapropisms, and takes dead mice and poses them into elaborate scenes. That last quirk is difficult and it’s a tricky blend of cutesy traits that Roach can’t balance. The oddball character who only tries to be helpful but only makes things worse is a comic staple that has been around for generations. Dinner for Schmucks approaches that character as if he were the kind of lunatic who would murder your family if he thought it would help you get out of going to Thanksgiving dinner. Barry isn’t violent, but his passion for taxidermy combined with his inability to understand social cues or utilize common sense makes him seem dangerous. Without the gentle warmth Carell brings to all of his roles, Barry would have wrecked the entire movie and turned comic escapades into a series of nightmarish complications.
Paul Rudd is in a worse place because not only is he once again stuck playing the straight man, but you feel no sympathy for his character. It isn’t because he’s using Barry for his own selfish ends, but because he’s stupid enough to let Barry ruin his life completely. Obviously, it’s the point to show that Rudd and his ilk are the real “schmucks”, but it’s that attempt at a heartwarming message that doesn’t click with the comic scenarios presented. And to the film’s credit, some of those scenarios work in spite of Roach’s tone-deaf direction. But I could hardly remember a single gag in the movie an after I saw it.
But I do remember Zach Galifianakis. Dinner for Schmucks would be a stronger film if the overall tone matched Galifianakis’ performance. Galifianakis plays Therman, Barry’s rival and the man who stole away Barry’s wife. Therman believes he has the power to control minds. It’s an oddball behavior, but the character’s eccentricity grows when a bizarre fashion choice is revealed. Then the character becomes slightly more sinister when he says he’ll help Barry only if Barry says, “You can eat my pudding.” You later learn the meaning of that line, and it’s funny because has some bite to it.
Schmucks is a toothless movie that wants to be a buddy flick and try to cutesy up anything that has a kick to it. The film is completely enamored of Jemaine Clement’s character Kieran, a flamboyant and oversexed artist who mistakes his own arrogance for deep wisdom. And despite Clement’s gusto in playing the role, it’s a character we’ve seen numerous times before. When Tim breaks into Kieran’s studio under the suspicion that his girlfriend is cheating on him, the farce lacks any punch because we know how it’s going to turn out. When the script sets up a conventional comic scene like this, there’s no imagination to make it feel fresh. When the script does try something original, the direction tones it down to where it won’t make fans of generic comedies (like Meet the Parents) too uncomfortable.
Dinner for Schmucks manages to be funny but only in spite of itself. The right actors are in play, but they’re always being underserved by the script, the direction, or both. There are intermittent moments where everything comes together and delivers big laughs. It’s a solid premise with talented lead actors and some clever jokes. But it’s also depressing to watch as you see a director read a joke without knowing how to tell it.