Phil on Film Index

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Review - Dinner for Schmucks

In Le dîner de cons, a group of friends regularly play a game in which they each invite the biggest idiot they can find to dinner and then proceed to make fun of them for the entire evening, but Francis Veber's hit 1998 comedy never even gets to stage the titular event. Instead, the film takes place in the apartment owned by Pierre Brochant (Thierry Lhermitte) whose life and relationship quickly unravels thanks to the well-meaning intervention of his own idiot François Pignon (Jacques Villeret). It's a simple premise that Veber carries off with great skill, not making any real attempt to open up his own stage play for the screen, but simply ensuring that the performances are pitch-perfect and that the whole thing plays out with clockwork efficiency. This is how you do a good screen farce.

Dinner for Schmucks, on the other hand, is how not to do a good screen farce. It's essentially the same story, but through the process of its adaptation the film has become bloated and distended, and its gleefully silly trifle of a plot has been flattened by the Hollywood formula machine. In other words, it has become a Jay Roach picture, and whereas the original made do with a single location and 80-odd minutes of fun, this version is built around a series of frantic yet increasingly tiresome set-pieces, with an awful lot of padding being required to help fill out its near two-hour running time. Dinner for Schmucks' most grievous crime, however, is its appalling waste of a cast packed with comic ability.

For example, take a look at the lead roles, which are filled by Paul Rudd and Steve Carell, two actors I'm normally delighted to see. Rudd plays Tim Conrad, an ambitious young banker looking to climb the corporate ladder, who is given the chance to join the high-rollers if he'll only take part in their idiots' dinner. In the original film, the arrogant, self-centred character of Pierre Brochant deserved his comeuppance, but Rudd is too likeable to play a bad guy, and he displays his misgivings with this idea from the start, so he's stuck playing a passive, wimpy cipher who just has to repeatedly gurn and moan at Barry's antics. Carell's Barry is little more than a recycling of the actor's Brick Tamland from Anchorman, an enthusiastic fool with an idiotic grin permanently etched upon his face, but his characterisation is too thin to hold for an entire movie. Whereas Veber's idiot was more of a likably clumsy oaf, Barry repeatedly comes across as aggressively annoying, and borderline retarded.

A film like Dinner for Schmucks really needed a director with a greater sense of anarchy and recklessness to fulfil its comedic potential, but Roach is not that director. Each of the big comic moments plays out in a drearily predictable fashion; a scene in involving Tim's ex-lover Darla (Lucy Punch, just awful) ends with her and Barry happily destroying Tim's apartment, while a later scene in which the same character impersonates Tim's girlfriend Julie climaxes with the real Julie (Stephanie Szostak, pretty but vapid) arriving at exactly the wrong moment. On two separate occasions in the film, the narrative is moved forward by characters walking in on a conversation and overhearing a confessional speech – the writing is beyond lazy.

There are small moments of inspiration visible here and there – most of which are offered by Jemaine Clement, who makes the most of his clichéd character – but in general the film is bafflingly free of jokes. Roach does eventually end with the dinner itself, but the picture is hardly improved by its presence as it quickly turns into a loud free-for-all, with Carell and Zach Galifianakis having some sort of mind-control contest, Chris O'Dowd waving a sword in the air, and David Walliams talking in a silly accent. I'm not sure what I found more grating, the hysterical mugging on display or the horribly insincere redemptive climax that has been bolted onto the end of the story. Roach seems to believe that audiences will go away happy as long as there's some trite learning and hugging at the end of the film, regardless of whether it coheres with what we've been watching for two hours, which strikes me as something of an insult. The dinner may be for schmucks, but does the movie have to be made for idiots?