July 29, 2010


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Dinner for Schmucks (PG-13)
A schlub working his way up the corporate ladder is asked to bring the goofiest schlemiel he can find to a night of ridicule with a bunch of shmendriks in Dinner for Schmucks, a potential-having but execution-flawed comedy starring Steve Carell and Paul Rudd.

Tim (Rudd) is a financial analyst attempting to move up a floor at the investment company where he works. After coming up with a promising idea for snagging a rich new client, Tim’s boss Lance (Bruce Greenwood) dangles a juicy promotion in front of him. But to be one of the swinging putzes on the seventh floor, Tim has to find and bring someone to a regular dinner his boss hosts. At the dinner, each member of the company’s upper echelon brings an idiot with the hopes of having his or her guest declared champion idiot of the night. Tim agrees when his girlfriend Julie (Stephanie Szostak) says the event sounds pretty messed up. But Tim also likes the idea of a promotion. And then he runs into Barry (Carell).

Barry, whom Tim literally runs into with his car, works at the IRS, but his real passion, in his spare time, is creating dioramas —recreations of moments in history and famous paintings as well as original scenes of a sweet couple in love — wherein all the people are represented by costumed, preserved, deceased mice. Mice replacing Jesus and the Apostles in da Vinci’s “The Last Supper.” A mouse Benjamin Franklin flying a kite during a lightning storm. The Mice-a Lisa. A spaz in addition to being the possessor of the world’s weirdest hobby, Barry seems heaven-sent, like a sign that Tim should give in to the corporate culture of douchiness and take his new “friend” to the boss’s big dinner.

This causes Julie, who seems unaware of the fact that the self-obsessed artist Kieran (Jermaine Clement) she represents would be the perfect and most karma-deserving fool, to storm out on Tim. In this weakened state, Barry shows up and unleashes a tornado of destruction on Tim’s life. He accidentally invites Tim’s stalker Darla (Lucy Punch) over to Tim’s house and then, in trying to scare her away, chases a previously ready-to-forgive Julie away. Then he Inspector-Clouseaus a brunch Tim is having with important clients. Then, in the process of trying to help Tim find Julie, Barry gets Tim put on an audit list by Therman (Zack Galifianakas), a coworker who has convinced Barry that he has the power of mind control.

As the movie winds toward the titular dinner, more wackiness is unleashed, more crazy characters — the woman who can receive messages from dead pets, the blind fencer — show up, more of my hopes were dashed. I wanted to like this movie. I like Paul Rudd and his angry preppy delivery, I like Steve Carell and his find-the-humanity-in-the-nutter comic abilities. I like Kristen Schaal (who plays Tim’s assistant) and her squeaky alterna-girl-ness, I like the overexposed Zach Galifianakis and the goofy Jermaine Clement (Flight of the Conchords). You could get me 80 percent excited about most movies just by telling me that some member of this cast is in it: Ron Livingston, for example. But this movie just wore down my optimism and had me limping to its finish line of dead mouse sight gags and extreme, forced zaniness.

This movie does two things I deeply dislike in a movie: (1) It has as the central character a regular shmoe who has to endure constant life-destruction by a wacky character (a la Mr. Bean or Bill Murray in What about Bob?) but we’re supposed to feel sympathy for only the wacky character and wag our fingers at the shmoe because he won’t loosen up. (2) It stretches the boundaries of how normal people act in the extreme — i.e. Tim has to fake propose to Darla so that the big client doesn’t know his girlfriend has left — to such an unreal degree that you lose the person-in-a-crazy-situation funny. If everyone is crazy, then the crazy doesn’t stand out. This movie also pushes us to laugh at all of Barry’s oddities and then wants us to share in the tsk-tsk-ing of the diners at the schmuck dinner who are also laughing.

There are pieces of this movie that I like, that I think want to be funny. Clement’s character — an artist who puts himself in every painting, often with Pan-like horns and hooves or some other bit of self-seriousness — is excellently absurd. And frequently Rudd’s delivery increases by 70 percent the funniness of whatever he’s just said. Carell shows once again how he can take the most ridiculous character and give him sweetness and likeability that transcends even mouse taxidermy. But these elements are not organic to the story; we don’t feel like the crazy situation is breeding increased craziness. It always seems like a writer thought up a wacky one character and put him, Mad-Libs-style, into a nutty situation, without thinking about how the whole story would flow together.

Even when the movie does manage to match character, situation and some sort of actual organic-feeling humor, it finds a way to step on the laugh, like a punch line spit out before you build the joke. You don’t feel tickled, you feel told to laugh. C

Rated PG-13 for sequences of crude and sexual content, some partial nudity and language. Directed by Jay Roach and written by David Guion and Michael Handelman (from a screenplay for Le Diner de Cons by Francis Veber), Dinner for Schmucks is an hour and 49 minutes long and opens in wide release on Friday, July 30. It is distributed by Paramount Pictures.