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Jason Wallis Missed opportunities abound in ‘Dinner for Schmucks’

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Posted: Saturday, August 7, 2010 12:00 am

“Inception” continues to rule the box office, and is now enjoying what should be its fourth consecutive weekend at the top of the chart — depending on how well “Step Up 3D” and “The Other Guys” open. (Next week I’ll be looking at the latter, just because I like to keep the torture to a minimum.)

The incredible success of “Inception” shouldn’t be all that surprising, I guess, especially considering the quality of movies it’s been going up against. But it’s still refreshing to see mainstream audiences so enthusiastically embrace an impressive piece of true pop art, as opposed to the recycled drek they usually champion. Between the bigger-than-expected successes of Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island,” Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” and Pixar’s “Toy Story 3” as well, general audiences are actually having a pretty decent year in terms of demonstrating good, sane taste. Let’s hope they keep it up.

Hollywood, on the other hand, can knock it off. This week brings yet another crushing disappointment in the form of “Dinner for Schmucks,” a remake of the 1998 French film “The Dinner Game.” It seemed to have potential, largely thanks to the presence of its two highly likable comedic stars, Paul Rudd and Steve Carell. But a flat screenplay by rookie screenwriters David Guion and Michael Handelman once again proves that, against all prevailing logic, even good casting can’t make up for anemic behind-the-scenes talent. Go figure.

With a different approach, “Dinner for Schmucks” probably would have made for a riotous, R-rated, politically incorrect comedy of the highest order. The plot is rife for it: Rudd stars as Tim, a low-level assets manager (or something equally mundane) who wants to impress the boss and claim his rightful place in the recently vacated main-floor office. Problems arise when Tim discovers that in order to woo his superiors, he must take part in a dinner game in which he invites along the most obliviously stupid person he can find — fresh meat for the snobbish superiors to make fun of. The employee who invites the most idiotic guest wins a trophy and, presumably, the boss’ favor.

Tim thinks he’s struck gold when he runs into Barry (Steve Carell), a lonely IRS worker and general buffoon who spends his time stuffing and arranging dead mice. But after an unfortunate misunderstanding involving Tim’s would-be fiancée, Barry immediately creates more problems for Tim than he solves. And, of course, being that this “Dinner for Schmucks” is strictly a good-hearted, PG-13-rated affair targeted at summer audiences, you know that by the end everything will turn out alright for everyone involved, and Tim will learn some Very Important Lessons about friendship and kindness and all that other good stuff. It’s occasionally heartwarming, but the story just begs for some edgier material.

For instance, this could have been a prime opportunity for Rudd to shed a bit of that “good guy in domestic strife” image that threatens to leave him permanently typecast as the exact same character in every movie (see also: “Role Models,” “I Love You, Man,” “Knocked Up”). I mean, this kind of thing appears to be working for him to a certain extent, but how long can he keep this up without losing all traces of self-respect as a comedian? He’s likable — there’s no denying that — but anyone who’s seen his smaller roles in movies like “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” “Reno 911!: Miami” and “Wet Hot American Summer” knows that he’s capable of far more.

Carell fares better in his more boisterous role. By throwing himself into the material with good cheer and reckless abandon, he almost — almost — sells the whole thing. Yet his character too often passes beyond the acceptable threshold of silliness, even when you take into account that he’s playing the world’s biggest idiot. Carell’s work is still worthy of admiration, though, especially since it’s larger in scale than anything else the actor has ever attempted. (Freshness always counts for something, and Rudd should take note.)

Supporting players include fine actors like Ron Livingston as a brown-nose colleague, Bruce “I should have an Oscar” Greenwood as the big boss, and Zach Galifianakis as Barry’s mind-controlling rival at the IRS, but the screenplay never finds room for them to establish much relevance as anything but plot devices — this despite the fact that the film is two hours long.

The dinner itself is, naturally, the funniest part of the whole thing, yet this scene only accounts for the film’s final 20 minutes. The lead-up is an hour and 40 minutes of Tim and Barry just sort of hanging out and doing stupid things, and I can’t help but wonder why the screenwriters and director Jay Roach (of the “Austin Powers” and “Meet the Parents” franchises) went with this structure, which negates promising supporting characters and proper narrative climax, yet focuses obsessively on weak subplots (e.g. Tim’s girlfriend may or may not be sleeping with the obligatory tortured artist she works with) and hammered-home sentimentality.

Here’s an even better question: What, exactly, is supposed to be the basis of humor here? If the film partially functions as a sermon on the evils of social mockery, then why is the other 80 percent of the movie predicated on the audience laughing at Barry’s stupidity? For much of the film we are laughing not with, but at Barry — so isn’t the audience somewhat implicated in all this, right along with Tim’s sycophantic cohorts? Of course, the film never attempts to observe or comment on this discrepancy, never tries to make any kind of meta-level connection with the material. The result is a sporadically entertaining but ultimately incomplete movie — the residue left over from what once could have been a worthy project.

Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at jasonwallis@comcast.net.

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