"Dinner for Schmucks" is one of those films whose ease in surfing the middle is made all the more frustrating by the talent riding the wave.
Starring Paul Rudd as Tim and Steve Carell as Barry, the film revolves around Tim's attempts to get ahead in business. His boss has a game in which he invites to dinner odd guests -- he calls them idiots -- and crowns one "the most interesting person" of the night. It's intended as private amusement for the major players in Tim's firm, with the "idiots" themselves none the wiser.
Tim meets Barry -- rather, he nearly runs him over -- and decides to take his newfound "friend" to the dinner in hopes of getting the promotion he believes will lead girlfriend Julie to accept his marriage proposal. This is the major emotional jeopardy that propels the film. It would be a fine set-up, provided the film didn't feature a scene in which Tim and Julie practically shout this at the audience.
"Dinner with Schmucks" all too often goes past telegraphing the meaning to yelling it through a megaphone. More often than not, it's an issue with the script, credited to David Guion and Michael Handelman. Most of the scenes are predicated on the comedy adage, "Tell the audience what you're going to do, do it, and then tell them that it has been done." Unfortunately, this often carries over into the emotional scenes as well.
The problem of obvious screenwriting is compounded by a stellar group of subtle, funny people. Rudd and Carell are surrounded by the likes of Jemaine Clement ("Flight of the Conchords"), Ron Livingston ("Office Space"), Larry Willmore ("The Daily Show") and comedian Zach Galifianakis. All of them are capable of very dry humor, but the script doesn't give them the opportunity to play it. Clement's bizzaro artist Kieran Vollard comes the closest to the form of comedy for which this group is best known. While the character is stock, Clement brings odd layers to the part and delivers lines that come by so fast and so sincere, you almost miss the joke.
Carell performs a magic trick as Barry goes from obnoxious to pitiful to heroic in the course of the film. He plays each aspect of the character to the hilt, and the audience will find it ultimately identifies with, and likes, the dense IRS employee who makes dioramas with taxidermied mice. A key scene toward the end is Barry's "Tower of Dream" speech and display, in which he makes a case for his way of life and for his admiration of Tim. Despite the obvious scripting, Carell makes it a charming moment.
Rudd, for his part, plays a good straight man. He manages to make a character that is utterly abhorrent on paper likable on screen. He reacts to situations Barry puts him in with an appropriate amount of comedic pain. Even as his emotional arc heads toward its predictable conclusion, Rudd finds a moment to unleash some of his own flair for wackiness. The key problem with his character is a flaw in the script: His short-sighted motivations never seem to be organic and happen only to produce the next comedy setpiece. For certain things to happen in this film, Tim must be more willfully ignorant than Rudd can manage.
Galifianakis presents a truly bizarre character in Therman, Barry's boss who claims to have the power to control minds. His first scene is genuinely surreal, with Carell playing Barry as under his thrall. It allows Tim to be the wry disbeliever in the power play. For the most part, Galifianakis keeps Therman subdued, with the character's absolute belief in his power providing the key to the comedy. Sadly, the character becomes less effective in the dinner scenes, as the audience comes to understand why he has power over Barry.
Also, it takes a great deal of time to get to the dinner. The characters have been together for 36 hours within the story, and roughly two-thirds of the film, before the titular dinner occurs. Although "Dinner for Schmucks" follows roughly the same plot progression as "Le diner de cons," the original French version of this story, it seems to move at a pace that is at once slow and seemingly too quick for certain elements to happen. That said, the dinner does offer a standout moment and a pretty entertaining crescendo.
Bruce Greenwood and Stephanie Szostak round out the cast as Tim's boss Lance and his girlfriend Julie. Greenwood brings his effortless cool to a role that represents Tim's career goal, while Szostak offers a fairly grounded love interest amid the broad chaos happening around her.
Though packed with solid performances from the headlining comedic talents, "Dinner for Schmucks" offers too much of a predictable mid-summer comedy. Director Jay Roach ("Austin Powers" films, "Meet the Fockers") also delivers dependable direction to a script that constrains the performers as often as it gives them room to show off their particular brands of comedy.