If there's one verity of comedy we can rely on, it's that movies predicated on having an average guy being relentlessly harangued by an irritating dork are usually doomed to fail. Why? Because they're annoying by their very definition. To name a few irksome titles from Hollywood's long history of forgotten features: Neighbors with John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd; What About Bob? with Richard Dreyfuss and Bill Murray; The Cable Guy with Matthew Broderick and Jim Carrey. Each one made audiences writhe in agony. None of their A-list comedians could pull off two hours of tiresome behavior and still be lovable, so why should anyone bother to try again?
Because those who ignore history… er, what was the rest of that line?
Enter director Jay Roach's Dinner for Schmucks. Its very title challenges you to like it. Perhaps the thought here was that it might spark curiosity: Who are these schmucks, and what are they having for dinner? Yet, the more you learn, the less savory it all seems. Paul Rudd plays Tim, an average guy at an investment firm who's cravenly trying to advance himself by luring in a Swiss millionaire. Impressed by his initiative, Tim's boss invites him into the company's inner sanctum of other scumbag executives for an exclusive dinner party—wherein each underling competes to see who can bring along the biggest idiot.
Okay. So the only way to really pull this scenario off without being seriously distasteful is to make it a dark social comedy, not unlike its French inspiration, The Dinner Game by Francis Veber. Right? Turn the tables and reveal the true idiocy of our elitist, get-rich-at-all-costs culture. But, oh, wait—this is director Jay "Austin Powers" Roach we're talking about. Bring in the gibbering dolts!
Dinner for Schmucks' primary buffoon is, of course, Steve Carell, who really is a gifted comic actor, particularly in small doses. Unfortunately, the word "small" is not in Roach's directorial lexicon, and he lets Carell run rampant as Barry, a lonely IRS employee with an obsession for taxidermy. As soon as Tim runs into Barry (literally, in his Porsche), he knows he has his moron. Barry likes to create elaborate dioramas using stuffed mice that he also outfits in costumes—so, he's quirky, yes. But he's also seriously "off," seemingly disconnected from the everyday world (whether he has mental-health issues is not made clear), and he immediately latches onto Tim after getting his invitation for dinner. Thus begins the nonstop annoyance.
Carell's Barry doesn't just inspire discomfort with his differentness—he's really a big pain in the ass, and in the course of several sit-com-like scenes he manages to trash Tim's apartment, ruin Tim's relationship with his fiancée, and nearly bring Tim's career to an end. Throughout the mayhem, he never quite manages to be believable or sympathetic; mostly, you wish Tim would strike back by strangling him, perhaps, or at least locking him out of his apartment. But no.
Unfortunately, Tim's no more likable than Barry. Rudd excels at playing comically shallow creeps, but he can't find his character's heart here, not even with the help of the beatific Stephanie Szostak, who plays Tim's suitably appalled girlfriend, Julie. Lacking any real moral compass beyond his desire not to offend Julie, Tim is not exactly a character you feel like rooting for, either.
So who's left? Well, we do get two scene-stealing supporting players, Zach Galifianakis and Jemaine Clement. Galifianakis plays Barry's imperious boss at the IRS, who believes he has the telepathic ability to control Tim's mind; with but a haughty glare and a crooked beard, Galifianakis exudes the offbeat humor that Roach should've been aiming for instead of over-the-top hijinks. Likewise, Clement gets laughs by downplaying an oversexed, undertalented visual artist who may be seducing Julie; even in cloven hooves and horns, Clement manages to retain his trademark dry humor, making a fool of himself without being obvious about it. Oh that Roach had taken a few notes on this concept.
As it reaches the titular meal, Dinner for Schmucks attempts to throw in some wholesome bits: Tim really can discern between right and wrong, and Barry isn't just a, um, schmuck. And they really like each other! But these side dishes are served while we're simultaneously gaping at all the assembled geeks lined up at the dinner table; the movie's belated lessons of acceptance, friendship, love, etc. don't really sit well with the fact that it's also asking us to chortle over its menu of idiots. While Dinner for Schmucks does provide some laughs, they're mostly empty ones that'll leave you hungry in the end.