In his first executive meeting at the Beverly Hills equity firm where he works, junior analyst Tim (Paul Rudd) sizes up the others sitting at the long table, and they toss quick knives back. They glance at the new boy with a practiced contempt as if they'd majored in sneering at Yale and exude the smugness of people belonging to a club whose membership list is now closed. Does Tim really want to join this piss-posh crowd? God, yes. So he will participate in an activity that to them is good, malicious fun, to him an ugly hazing ritual. He will attend a dinner party hosted by his boss (Bruce Greenwood) and, like the others, bring some doofus who can be relied on to make a fool of himself. Biggest idiot/lamebrain/schmuck wins.
A tangle of ambition and decency, Tim is both excited by his chance to break into the big time and troubled by the entry dues he has to pay. His girlfriend, Julie (Stephanie Szostak), disapproves of the dinner game, to the point of threatening to leave him and spend time with randy performance artist Kieran (Jemaine Clement). That worries decent Tim; but ambitious Tim can hardly pass up the savory, sordid chance, because he's just run into nearly run over, in fact the perfect schmuck: Barry (Steve Carell), an amateur taxidermist who constructs elaborately sad dioramas of his life, peopled by stuffed mice. The briefest exposure to Barry shows how his inanity has screwed up his life. The rest of Dinner for Schmucks will demonstrate how Barry can screw up Tim's.
A very sit-throughable comedy, Dinner for Schmucks is a remake of Francis Veber's 1998 French film, Le Dîner de Cons (The Dinner Game). Veber, a kind of Gallic Neil Simon, worked on the script of the original La Cage aux Folles later Americanized as The Birdcage, with Robin Williams and Nathan Lane. Seven other Veber movies have been remade in Hollywood, most of them blips on the résumés of their high-powered stars Williams in The Toy and Fathers' Day, Tom Hanks in The Man with One Red Shoe and directors: Billy Wilder's final film, Buddy Buddy. (Le Dîner de Cons also inspired a Bollywood comedy, the 2007 Bheja Fry.) Dinner for Schmucks is the best of the Veber retread lot, and a little better than it should be.
Le Dîner de Cons (which translates gently as Dinner for Idiots) has the agenda of a morality play: to reveal that the seemingly normal guy is the emotional moron, whose failings the seeming moron will expose. Pierre (Thierry Lhermitte) is a successful publisher who cheats on his wife and is an eager participant in the dinner game. He's everything his American doppelgänger, Tim, fears becoming; he's the other guys at the executive meeting. Veber's idiot, François (Jacques Villeret) a forlorn tax collector whose hobby is creating matchstick sculptures of the Eiffel Tower, the Golden Gate Bridge, etc. is less schmuck than schlemiel: he has exactly the sweet-souled klutziness and knack for disaster to teach Pierre the lesson he deserves. With the diagrammatic help of a few supporting characters (Pierre's girlfriend; François's chum at the Ministry of Finance), Veber constructs the matchstick antihero, kicks him to pieces and rehabilitates him. The whole thing's over in a brisk 80 minutes, and without ever getting to the big dinner.
An unlikable protagonist being both too simple and too bold an idea for a Hollywood comedy, screenwriters David Guion and Michael Handelman make Tim more conflicted and Barry way weirder. The two characters might be occupying different movies; they make Schmucks an Ivesian symphony in cleverly clashing tones. Director Jay Roach, of the Austin Powers and Meet the ... franchises, gives Tim's early scenes an understated precision, with a rolling, accelerating tempo and a pleasingly anxious performance by Rudd, and for all the glowering from the equity execs, a general absence of mugging reaction shots to cue the audience's rooting interest. Just as Roach's Meet the Parents delivered more than its one-line synopsis promised (ooh, the guy's surname is Focker!), Dinner for Schmucks transcends the grossness of its title and trailers. This may not be the highest achievement of the director's art to exceed minimal expectations but it's an honorable one, and Roach makes the grade.
Then Carell takes charge, in Moe Howard haircut and young Jerry Lewis affect, and the movie pirouettes also expertly into slapstick mode. Barry is so socially maladroit as to be criminally clueless; François, from the Veber original, would take one look at Barry and say, "Cet homme est un vrai con!" Carell's function here is to get viewers instantly and constantly cringing in apprehension of how he will next humiliate Tim. The movie isn't so much schizophrenic as playing both sides of its coin acutely observed comedy and flat-out farce in hopes of attracting both the older and the younger demographic. You're meant to endure whichever parts you don't like and savor the ones you do.
Even in its grueling sections (choose one), Dinner for Schmucks has ample diversions in some lovely supporting roles. Zach Galifianakis, who has been in six features since The Hangover a year ago, has mesmerizing fun with the one-note role of Barry's co-worker and wife stealer. Clement (Bret McKenzie's slightly loopier bandmate in The Flight of the Conchords) gives Kieran a satyr's preening menace a delicious turn that's not far from Clement's bogus fantasy-novel author, Dr. Ronald Chevalier, in Gentlemen Broncos. I also was mad for Lucy Punch as Tim's ex-girlfriend, a vengeful stalker with nymphomaniac tendencies and a naughty tongue. In her one long scene, Punch, who has a similar (though less amusing) role in Woody Allen's new You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, displays a gift for physical comedy as high art. I kept hoping she'd return, to torture Tim and Barry, and elevate the movie's game.
And the dinner game: yes, Dinner for Schmucks does finally get there, so the pompous guys can get theirs. It's the familiar moral that crazy is better than normal, because anarchy liberates from confining social norms and because, without the crazies, a comedy would have no one to trip over furniture or play with dead mice. But on the way to this predictable conclusion, the movie offers plenty of smart entertainment. You'd be a schmuck to miss it.