It's tempting to say that Jay Roach's Dinner for Schmucks is two half-baked films sewn together by a few extended comedic episodes, but its faults lead to something far more erratic and uneven. There are a few stories being told here that, on their own, might have made for middling, quirky indie fair: A man suspects his girlfriend of cheating on him with her eccentric client or, say, a divorced man must gain self-confidence to outdo the man who his wife left him for, who also happens to be his boss. Even better would have been all-out comic bedlam that one might have anticipated given a cast brimming with seasoned, talented comedians, both well-known and less so. Taking a slightly known and superior French comedy (Francis Veber's The Dinner Game) as its template, Dinner for Schmucks nevertheless squanders many of its positive aspects by routinely indulging in familiar and unfocused conventions.
The story, adapted from Veber's original script by Michael Handelman and David Guion, concerns Tim (Paul Rudd), a mid-level mover and shaker at a small case equity firm who is gunning for a promotion upstairs that might convince his girlfriend (Stephanie Szostak) to accept the latest in a long line of marriage proposals. An idea to turn old weapons into furniture—the film is not without its more subtle rib-pokes at capitalistic absurdities—earns Tim an invitation to the monthly “Dinner for Winners” held by his boss (Bruce Greenwood) and beloved by his would-be colleagues, most prominently played by Ron Livingston and Larry Wilmore. The game hinges on who can bring the biggest nincompoop to the dinner to show off what they have labeled as their “skills.” Egged on by his secretary (Kristen Schaal) and the possibility of a huge new account with a Swiss millionaire (David Walliams), Tim ultimately caves to his girlfriend's moral disgust, despite the fact that she helps manage Kieran (Jemaine Clement), a morally ambivalent and promiscuous creator of horrid and horridly pretentious photography art.
Enter the proverbial golden goose, in this case coming in the form of taxidermy enthusiast and dedicated IRS worker Barry (Steve Carell) whom Tim runs over one morning and promptly invites to the eponymous affair. Hijinks ensue, including a visit from a grotesquely clingy one-night-stand of Tim's (Lucy Punch), a battle of wills between Barry and Therman (Zach Galifianakis), his boss at the IRS, a suspected tryst between Kieran and Tim's girlfriend and a double date with the Swiss client and his wife that goes south not long after Tim quotes Baudelaire. Spats of drama (mostly involving the girlfriend but sometimes in reference to Barry's divorce) erupt frequently enough to kill off the film's momentum as it enters the main event, with Carell and Rudd more or less facing off against Livingston and Galifianakis for the title of biggest butthead.
The contestants, played most memorably by Chris O'Dowd, Octavia Spencer, and Jeff Dunham, develop minor, enjoyable pitter-patters and have sufficiently goofy gags to play, but the contest itself becomes more of a yes-I-can moment than a manic deployment of the peculiar. The dinner itself becomes less of a climactic unleashing than yet another in the film's gathering of quickly diffused uproars. Guion and Handelman, who last penned Jesse Peretz's deeply unfunny The Ex, carry a great deal of the blame on this, seeing as they continuously choose rigid structure and moments of sentimentality so predictable that they might as well be laser-guided over inventiveness or narrative ambition. Even the setups are rote, but the performers, all working at full-steam, continuously raise the limp material to the level of genuine humor, with Clement and Punch sharing MVP honors.
One cannot, however, turn a blind eye to the fact that Dinner for Schmucks is not all that different from the decidedly tame comedy that Roach has been peddling since he hit pay dirt with the legitimately entertaining first Austin Powers installment. But whereas his crass Meet the Parents reverted to sentimental archetypes when it wasn't searching for the humor in potty-trained felines, Dinner for Schmucks offers a nuanced and emotionally acute performance by Carell that gives the film an almost perverse fascination even when the laughs lag. The performance is not all that different from the glut of his previous work, but it's certainly the most fragile and adept that he has been since The 40-Year-Old Virgin. The Daily Show alum has a rare ability to keep both his emotional and physical reactions to situations unpredictable; he always seems like he's just one utterance away from completely breaking down. His exchanges with Clement are wonderful.
Barry, I suspect, is too chaotic and alone to qualify as the backbone of a film and thus it is the trite romantic plot that supplies the film with a flimsy urgency. This sets out limits that the performers often test but never breach and it makes the film look messy and disorganized, if enjoyable overall. Like most films of its ilk, Dinner for Schmucks plays as if it is stuck between Judd Apatow and Rob Reiner and spends a great deal of its time scurrying back and forth between these grand totems. Either would have made for a more consistent tone at the very least and then perhaps Dinner for Schmucks might have registered as something more than a pile of potential.
DreamWorks has done solid work, once again, with this 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer. Modified slightly from its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio to a 1.78:1 aspect ratio, the film boasts utter clarity and a crisp color scheme, but its craftsmanship is negligible in its details, as in the textures of the clothing and fur of Barry's mouse-centric dioramas. Black levels are nice and there's no discernable evidence of softness, banding, or aliasing. Same goes for the DTS 5.1 Master Audio, which is remarkably strong despite the fact that Dinner for Schmucks is not in any way complex in sound design. Nevertheless, dialogue is clear and out front while atmosphere and Jon Brion's lovely but sometimes obtrusive score are mixed beautifully.
There are a few guffaw-worthy moments here, but in a case reminiscent of the movie, they are eclipsed by the amount of backslapping and kudos flying around. The deleted scenes and the outtakes offer the most enjoyable moments, while a terribly boring making-of featurette does little more than ensure that everyone on set were great admirers of one another. Most of the other featurettes are similar, but then there's "The Men Behind the Mouseterpieces," a short featurette about the Chiodo brothers who designed the dioramas and, a long time ago, were responsible for Killer Klowns from Outer Space. An hour with the brothers would have made for a great extra and in the right hands, might have eclipsed the feature.
Overflowing with talented performers, Dinner for Schmucks sadly remains beholden to stiff structure and unimaginative narrative turns from the get-go.