I’m missing something here. I understand that the real schmucks of Dinner for Schmucks are played by Bruce Greenwood, Larry Wilmore, and Ron Livingston, not Paul Rudd and Steve Carell, and that means I should be able to see how certain characters and plot elements are ultimately redeemed. So then why do I still feel that this movie is ugly, spiteful, and profoundly unfunny? How is it that I cannot bring myself to feel anything for the characters I’m supposed to have feelings for? What is the one element that makes such unpleasantness okay to sit through? What am I failing to see? Many have been praising Dinner for Schmucks for its slapstick comedy and its representation of character, but to me, it’s a deep mystery, raising the question of how anyone could ever find it entertaining.
Perhaps it all has to do with the underlying premise, which is so mean-spirited that no amount of broad humor could make me look past it. In the film, a group of high powered executives, all arrogant, hold an annual dinner party in which they showcase the dumbest people they can find, people who all claim to have special talents and seem to enjoy flaunting them. To me, this isn’t comedy, but rather a study in human cruelty. It doesn’t matter that the joke is on the executives and not on the guests; the fact that they’re all too stupid to realize how badly they’re being treated only makes the movie’s idea that much more depressing. Why? Because, even after the dinner is over, they will continue to live in a state of hopeless ignorance. This is no way to live. This is just plain sad.
Such a person is IRS employee Barry Speck (Carell), who always displays big toothy grins and seems to enjoy laughing a lot. He literally doesn’t have a clue. He does things without really thinking them through first. He makes the lives of those around him a living hell, although he believes he’s actually helping them, which I guess is to be expected since this is a comedy of errors. I suspect I was supposed to like this character, especially at the end of the film. That’s the problem – I didn’t like him one bit. His ignorance was annoying. His sweet natured clumsiness was infuriating. And then there’s his “talent,” which is collecting dead mice, having them stuffed and dressed in various tiny costumes, and then posing them in highly detailed dioramas and model scenes. I’m sorry, but I find this incredibly disturbing.
The plot, which is adapted from the French film Le Dîner de Cons (itself adapted from a play), begins with Tim Conrad (Rudd), a financial executive clawing his way up the corporate ladder, his latest negotiation with a wealthy Swiss businessman (David Walliams) having gone well. Impressed, Tim’s boss, Lance Fender (Greenwood), invites him to take part in the aforementioned dinner. Lo and behold, he literally rams into Barry, who then clings to Tim like a dog who has just found a new best friend. Over the course of a day, a night, and a brunch, Barry systematically ruins Tim’s life. He mistakenly reintroduces him to an ex-girlfriend (Lucy Punch), a stalker so frightening it’s a wonder Tim never tried filing a restraining order. This, in turn, jeopardizes his relationship with his current girlfriend, Julie (Stephanie Szostak), who is never ready to say yes when he proposes to her.
Despite the title, the dinner isn’t seen until the very end, at which point the plot’s unflinching cruelty left me mentally drained. This is bad because the dinner is one of relentless absurdity – everything and everyone involved is so unbelievably silly that I just couldn’t process it anymore. Over the course of this scene, we see a ventriloquist that thinks his dummy is his wife, a blind swordsman, a dead animal medium (who reacts grotesquely to her lobster dinner), and Barry’s boss (Zach Galifinakis), a man who believes he has the ability to control people’s minds; with such a large gathering of odd, goofy people, the scene becomes a chaotic free-for-all, one that very quickly becomes unappealing and unfunny.
Knowing that Fender and his cronies are heartless, knowing that the invited idiots are too idiotic to understand that they’re idiots, and knowing that Tim went along with it all for the sake of getting ahead in business, I simply cannot bring myself to say anything nice about Dinner for Schmucks. Why is this? The ending is one of sweet – albeit twisted – redemption, which means I should be able to look past everything that made my skin crawl. But some movies are just too nasty for their own good, and no amount of last-minute hopefulness can gloss over that. It’s a story about mean people doing mean things, and as far as I’m concerned, that doesn’t qualify as entertainment. I felt sad leaving the theater, and I secretly hoped that the filmmakers would someday understand just how wrong their efforts were.