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Non-Review Review: Dinner for Schmucks

The real problem with Dinner for Schmucks is that it’s not really that funny. I can talk for quite a while (and probably will) about how the movie takes all the flaws with unsympathetic comedic protagonists demonstrated by films like Due Date and turns them up to eleven, but that will ignore the fact that the laughs in the film are relatively few and far between, which is a shame when one considers the sheer volume of talent involved. Paul Rudd, in particular, is a talented and charismatic actor who really needs to make better choices in films.

No funny business...

Part of the problem is that the movie is ridiculously predictable, even by the standards of generic Hollywood comedies. The outcome and the character arcs are never really in doubt from the moment that the premise is introduced. A bunch of powerful individual host a Dinner for Winners, which is anything but. Each invitee is required to bring along one guest. The most entertaining guest wins a trophy. “You invite idiots to dinner and make fun of them?” our lead asks, seeking clarification. as another individual remarks, “Such a pleasure to laugh at the misfortune of others.”

Now, it’s easy to see exactly where the film is going. Our lead character will agree to go, seeking a promotion. He’ll befriend an idiot who will initially be so obnoxious that he’s hard to stand. As the dinner approaches, our lead will have a crisis of conscience and come to realise that his promotion or whatever simply isn’t worth this. Throw in some disagreements to prevent him from getting to like the guy too soon, and we’ve got a movie. Absolutely every single aspect of the film is pretty much preordained from the moment Bruce Greenwood’s sinister corporate executive invites Paul Rudd’s hotshot to dinner.

Milkin' it...

There are a few problems with this. Okay, inviting people to dinner to make fun of them is a horrible thing to do, but it kinda ignores the fact that most lead characters in American comedies treat each other like crap anyway. Consider, for instance, the way that Charlie Day’s character is treated by his mates in Horrible Bosses, or how Alan is treated by Phil over the course of The Hangover and The Hangover, Part II. In both cases, the leads spend the movie having a bit of fun at the expense of the weirder member of their ensemble. The fact the dinner institutionalises that mockery might serve to make it a little bit worse, but it’s not too far outside standard operating procedure. The only reason that our lead won’t commit to it is because the movie makes such a big deal of it. If it wasn’t the entire point of the movie, you get the sense that it would be a cruel joke in another movie played entirely straight.

The real problem, however, is that both of our leads come across as significantly worse than the typical comedy archetypes. Steve Carrell, who seems to save his good work for The Office, plays the idiot courted by Paul Rudd’s character. Although the film gives him a tragic backstory and a cute (if freaky) hobby (wonderfully introduced to The Fool on the Hillby the Beatles, easily the best sequence of the film), the problem is that he’s just unlikeable. Like Ethan in Due Date, he’s smart enough to emotionally manipulate his partner into staying with him, but seemingly too stupid to remember to breath – but with both extremes pushed far out. He’s more manipulative than Ethan, but dumber, too. It goes so far that I don’t believe any of his idiocy is genuine, and I lean towards believing it’s a cynically manipulative act. Which makes it difficult for me to pity him.

A model comedy?

The problem with Rudd’s character is one of degree. He might actually be more of a decent human being than Phil in The Hangover, but the problem is that the character isn’t quite as charming. Phil (and any number of other rude and ruthless and selfish protagonists) are put in a situation where the audience is asked to root for them, rather than placing their interests in direct conflict with a character who probably doesn’;t understand how automatic doors work. While Phil is physically and emotionally abusive to Alan, he doesn’t exploit him. Though Paul Rudd might play a better person, he’s judged somewhat harsher because of his of his actions.

That’s the problem. The movie is essentially about stupid and mean people being mean and stupid to other stupid and mean people. There’s no interesting angle to any of this. The only person who possibly draws audience sympathy is our lead’s long-suffering girlfriend, but even she is too thinly-drawn to keep us interested. We have no reason to care about any of these people, beyond the fact that they keep insisting that they are reallythat bad. Self-justification doesn’t really sell it – even if it’s an attempt to explain what you have to do to make ends meet, or a story about your wife.

Winging it...

The supporting cast is rounded out by a bunch of wasted talent. I love Bruce Greenwood and Ron Livingstone, but they really need to find better work than this – either actor could easily be a memorable character, instead they are on-note plot functions. David Walliams, Jermaine Clement and Zach Galifianakis are the movie’s token “quirky” characters, but none is given enough material to really make any sort of impression (although they do try). The standout character of the film is Ciaran O’Dowd as a blind swordsman, who paints. Asked if his work is any good, he replies, “I don’t know.” And I feel bad, because I ruined one of the few genuinely hilarious moments in the film.

The film does come to life a bit when it enters that classic comedy of manners setting: the dining scene. There are two dining scenes, one in the middle and one at the end, that work better than the rest of the movie around them, but they still seem to lack bite. They’re pleasantly amusing rather than laugh-out-loud.

It’s a shame, because the talent involved really should have made a better film.

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4 Responses

  1. I liked it, although they could have gotten to the actual dinner a bit sooner and spent more time there instead of the buildup. No complaints with Rudd; he plays the straight man and goofball equally well. Looking forward to seeing him in Our Idiot Brother.

    • I do like Rudd, but the guy needs to choose his movies better. He’s undoubtedly incredibly talented, but I don’t think he’s really found a lead role that suited him. His best work was as a supporting player, like in The 40 Year Old Virgin or Anchorman.

  2. Watching the movie, I never felt that Steve Carrell’s character had consistent motives and character traits. It seemed like his whole purpose was to be awful to Paul Rudd’s character, regardless if it made sense with the previous characterizations already established in the movie.

    Overall, definitely a mess of a movie.

    • Yep, that’s it. He’s like Schrodinger’s Character, where whatever he does next depends on what the movie needs to happen next, rather than fitting with a consistant characterisation. Personally, the only cohesive interpretation of the character that I can piece together is that he’s nowhere near as dumb as he lets on, and is an incredibly cynical manipulator who is just lonely and will do whatever it takes to monopolise his new friend’s time, by alienating his new friend’s other friends (and rivals for his attention), while seeming pathetic enough to keep him around. But that doesn’t hold water either, because we see him doing incredibly stupid things when he’s on his own as well.

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