Dinner for Schmucks raises the ontological question ‘Who is the greater schmuck – the one who is invited to dinner, the one who gives the dinner, or the one who sees the movie?’

Not a bad film in any objective sense, Dinner for Schmucks is just ragingly mediocre, a film that aims at the middle and completely hits it. It feels like a movie that was created to hit a certain box office number, with anything too edgy filed down and just the right amount of ready-for-primetime edginess put in its place. There’s no vision to the movie or to the comedy, and the final moral is wan and meaningless. 

Somehow Paul Rudd and Steve Carrell have made three films together but still feel as though they have next to no chemistry. They’re not antithetical on screen, but there’s also no connection. A movie like this – where Rudd’s striving business guy is being confounded by the idiocy of Carrell’s idiot – needs a Martin and Lewis vibe, or an Abbot and Costello connection. They simply don’t have that. What’s more, Carrell’s character doesn’t have the likable side that those classic cinematic dopes did. His character is a creepy, emasculated, moronic obsessive with no self-awareness and even poorer social skills. There’s nothing to like with Carrell’s character, and when they trot out a sad side of his character it actually made me like him less. He comes across like an unassertive dweeb lost in a fantasy land of semi-retardation. There’s a fine line between tragic and pathetic, but Carrell is standing well deep inside pathetic territory.

Rudd’s character fares little better. Dinner for Schmucks is based on a French film called The Dinner Game, but as those crazy, arty French will do they gave the Gallic Rudd character an arc. The French version had a guy who was cheating on his wife and who attended a monthly dinner to which he and his media elite buddies would invite weirdos with the sole purpose of making fun of them. The American version has a good guy just trying to make a better life for he and his wife who finds his major promotion hinging on attending a dinner to which his boss and co-workers invite weirdos with the sole purpose of making fun of them. The French version has a character who has room to grow, to stop being a jerk and to learn a lesson. The American version has a guy who… well, who is just trying to do his best and may be on the verge of acting like a jerk, which is totally out of character for him. In the French version I’m enjoying the interplay between the ass who is being taken down a notch and the fool who is unwittingly taking him down. In the American version I’m endlessly irritated by this dipshit who is just piece by piece ruining the life of a pretty good guy who just needs to discover decency and success can go hand in hand.

Carrell has played this same role but better before – Brick Tamland in Anchorman is exactly who this moron should be. Sweet, innocent, dumb and trusting. Instead the film has Carrell just about break up Rudd’s marriage, get Rudd audited, and pretty much lose Rudd his job, all while being an oblivious shit. And it’s one of those movies where Rudd could make everything better by simply explaining what is going on. It’s like a two hour episode of Three’s Company, where you’re dying for somebody to simply say ‘Oh, I understand what you think but it’s not that at all…’ The great screwball comedies set up situations where a simple line of dialogue wouldn’t clear it all up. Schmucks is not one of the great screwball comedies.

Director Jay Roach brings an anonymous style to the proceedings, but he has sense enough to fill out the cast with funny people. Jemaine Clement is very funny as an egotistical, hypersexual artist whose main subject is himself, while Lucy Punch is creepily delightful as one of Rudd’s old flames come back into his life because Carrell’s character is a fucking idiot. Bruce Greenwood plays a very great slimy businessguy in a very 80s mold; he’s having fun as a straight man, which can be a cool thing to watch. Zach Galifianakis continues his utterly mercenary career path as an IRS auditor with mental powers; he’s funny in bits, but you’re getting exactly what you expect to get from Galifianakis at this point. He’s not bringing anything interesting or new to the table, and while the laughs he’s able to squeeze from certain things are real laughs, it’s sort of tiring to see his face pop up in a movie and be aware of exactly how every joke will play out. Range, Zach.

Carrell is lost behind Jerry Lewis cartoon teeth and a bad haircut. If you’re still a big fan of Carrell’s schtick this movie will probably make you happy; for me I feel like I’ve seen him do comedically clueless enough. Rudd’s not doing much better, trapped in a straight man role that offers him no shading and no place to go. His big acting challenge is to convince you that he wouldn’t punch Carrell in the face repeatedly.

There are laughs in Dinner for Schmucks, but they’re not much heartier than what you would get watched TV schlock like Big Bang Theory or Two and a Half Men. This is a movie that might be best appreciated on a lazy Sunday afternoon on TBS in about six years.

5.5 out of 10