In Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums, Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) calls childhood mate Eli Cash (Owen Wilson) "especially not a genius" in reference to his derivative cowboy novels. Shocked by this assessment, Eli asks, "How can you say that someone is especially not a genius?" As I looked over the career of director Jay Roach, it struck me that he is especially not a genius. He works with the material and the cast that he has and if those are good, the movie is good. If they're not, Roach can do nothing to save the project. Luckily for him--and for us--Dinner For Schmucks contains the best material and the best cast Roach has had since Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery.
Based on the French film Le Diner de Cons (from the same screenwriter of La Cage Aux Folles, a film that would be remade into The Birdcage), Dinner for Schmucks stars Paul Rudd as Tim, aspiring executive at Fender Financial, a company that takes failing companies and strips them for everything they're worth. After making a huge proposal, Tim is invited by Fender himself (Bruce Greenwood, Star Trek) to join him and other high level executives for a dinner. But it's not just any dinner. At this dinner, Fender and his cronies bring outrageous idiots to the dinner so they can make fun of them, under the guise of praising their "exceptional abilities." When Tim's girlfriend Julie (Stephanie Szostak) discovers the invitation, she demands Tim decline. When he impresses upon her how important his impending promotion, and thus his participation at the dinner is, Julie storms out furiously. Tim, not sure what to do, chances upon Barry (Steve Carell), and IRS auditor so clueless in daily life that Tim knows he would be perfect for the dinner. But in keeping Barry around, Tim's life goes to hell, as Barry manages to bungle everything that he comes across. Can Tim survive long enough to make it to the dinner, and if he does, is it all worth it?
Dinner For Schmucks is easily one of the funniest films I've seen all year. Right from the word go, the film clicks, tossing in non sequitur gags and darkly comic asides that fit right in with the mean-spirited nature of the titular dinner. The film is definitely darker than your average American comedy, with infidelity, a dominatrix, and the aforementioned dinner where rich bastards laugh mercilessly at people who don't know they're being mocked. The darker tone isn't quite bleak enough to call Dinner For Schmucks a black comedy. Instead, it sits somewhere in the middle, a fine balancing act that it pulls off impressively.
Paul Rudd continues to make a career out of playing put-upon businessmen, but Tim is more interesting than his roles in I Love You Man or Role Models, with more complexity and maturity to him. Rudd does a great job of playing the straight man while still getting in some good jabs of his own. Steve Carell is known for playing a clueless character in The Office, but Barry is on a whole other level entirely. It's not a stretch to say this is his best performance since The 40 Year Old Virgin (although the latter film gets the nod for having more of an arc). The rest of the cast is equally brilliant. Stephanie Szostak is gorgeous as Julie, Bruce Greenwood is his usual authoritative self, and Jemaine Clement steals the show as an egotistical artist. There's a cavalcade of hilarious comedic actors in supporting roles, including Kristen Schaal (Flight of the Conchords, Toy Story 3), Ron Livingston (Office Space), and Chris O'Dowd (The IT Crowd).
The film also has a surprising amount of heart, with many "Awwww" moments that feel genuine and not manufactured. That these elements do not feel cloying is to Jay Roach's credit, who manages to push the audience just far enough, but never over the edge. He has an assured hand that comes from years of comedy directing, but is never so showy as to distract from the material. In fact, Dinner for Schmucks is reminiscent of one of Roach's biggest hits, the abominable Meet The Parents. Both feature popular American comedians getting put upon to the point of absurdity, but in Meet The Parents, Ben Stiller's character doesn't deserve it, so when the audience identifies with him, it's painful. Tim, on the other hand, is kind of a jerk (and is told as much by Julie), so when horrible things happen to him, the audience can laugh and not feel so much empathy that the humor is lost. Hopefully Dinner For Schmucks is a one-time deal and doesn't get run into the ground with pointless sequels the way Meet The Parents has.
Dark, touching, funny, and impressively performed, Dinner For Schmucks is one of the funniest American comedies of the year. Get yourself to a theater, because this is one dinner date you won't want to miss.