By Christy Lemire/AP Movie Critic
There’s a lot less bite in “Dinner for Schmucks’’ than there was in the classic French farce that was its inspiration.
Whereas “The Dinner Game’’ (“Le Diner de Cons’’) from celebrated writer-director Francis Veber was a tight, sharp satire of societal pretension _ and was nominated for six Cesar Awards in 1999 _ this remake seems more interested in easy, broad slapstick.
That’s unsurprising coming from Jay Roach, director of the “Austin Powers’’ movies, “Meet the Parents’’ and “Meet the Fockers.’’ Still, Roach takes his sweet time getting to the big, wacky evening at the film’s climax. “Dinner for Schmucks’’ is 34 minutes longer than its predecessor, and feels like it. As Steve Carell and Paul Rudd get to know each other during a series of mishaps and misunderstandings, the pacing drags and the script takes this twosome through some seriously time-consuming, hit-and-miss detours en route to a predictably safe ending.
But Carell, being the smart, sensitive comic actor that he is, infuses what might have been an insufferably obnoxious character with some real humanity. You come to care about this guy, especially once you learn how he stumbled into his sad-sack life. The same can’t be said for Rudd’s character _ the straight man in the equation _ because he’s drawn so plainly, it’s hard to feel emotionally invested in whether he suffers or succeeds.
Rudd stars as Tim Conrad, a financial analyst on the verge of a promotion at a competitive private equity firm. But first, he must impress his boss (Bruce Greenwood) at a secret monthly dinner where the company elite compete to see who can bring the biggest idiot as their guest. Tim’s sophisticated girlfriend Julie (Stephanie Szostak) is appalled at the cruelty of this concept but – clearly being an idiot himself – he goes through with it anyway, hoping to impress her enough that she’ll finally say yes to his repeated marriage proposals. Flawed logic, but whatever.
When Tim literally runs into Barry Speck (Carell), a kindhearted IRS employee and amateur taxidermist, he knows he’s found his schmuck. In the original film, the poor, unsuspecting fool builds models of famous monuments using matchsticks. Barry makes intricate dioramas using dead mice he’s lovingly dressed up and placed in whimsical settings; the details of them, highlighted at the film’s start, are hilarious and awesome at once.
Being clueless about everything else in life, though, Barry gets his nights mixed up and gloms onto Tim early. Since he’s such a decent fellow, he tries to help Tim out of a series of sticky situations but, naturally, only makes things worse. This includes making Julie think he’s having an affair with a psycho stalker (Lucy Punch) and breaking into the loft of an arrogant artist and notorious womanizer (Jemaine Clement) who’s one of Julie’s top clients. They also run into Zach Galifianakis, underused in a one-note role as Barry’s work rival who fancies himself an expert in mind control.
Too often, these scenarios are uncomfortable for the viewer – not because of their intended awkward comedy, but because they’re just plain tedious to watch.
But Clement, best known for “Flight of the Conchords,’’ is a total scream here, cut very much from the same skintight cloth as Russell Brand in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall’’ and “Get Him to the Greek.’’ It’s as if he exists in his own movie _ a deliciously weirder and infinitely more interesting one.
“Dinner for Schmucks,’’ a Paramount Pictures release, is rated PG-13 for sequences of crude and sexual content, some partial nudity and language.