Of all movie genres, horror and comedy are the hardest to do right and the easiest for which to judge effectiveness.  The barometer of a successful horror movie is this question:  “Was it scary?”  The barometer of a successful comedy is this one:  “Was it funny?”  Of course, once you can answer those questions one way or the other, there’s plenty else to talk about, but at the top, it’s a fairly simple test.  Dinner For Schmucks is mostly funny.  I laughed many times throughout the movie.  Most of you won’t need more than that when you decide what movie to see this weekend.  For the rest, read on…

Dinner For Schmucks is what is referred to in technical terms as a farce.  (Think Three’s Company.)  It’s a comedy of escalating misunderstandings that culminates in an epic set-piece where everything comes to a head (that would be the dinner in the title.)  It’s adapted from a French movie directed by practitioner of farce Francis Veber, called Le diner de cons.  That sounds very pretentious, on the face of it.  You know how you avoid pretentious in America?  Cast Paul Rudd and Steve Carell.

Paul Rudd plays Tim, a decent enough guy for a sports car driver in LA.  He’s ambitious and the early scenes of the movie see him trying to climb the corporate ladder with ingenuity and hard work.  Once he gets attention from the higher-ups though, they want him to impress them a different way.  They want him to find the most hilarious mess of a human being that he can possibly find, and bring him or her to a dinner party where they will all laugh at each other’s candidates for schmuck of the year.  The movie does a little dance around the cruelty of this idea.  Obviously the audience wants to see it happen, even though we know it’s mean, but if the dinner didn’t happen, there would be no movie.  So it’s not the most emotionally or conceptually genuine comedy I’ve ever seen, but I went with it.  It’s a choice you’ll have to make.  Anyway, Tim doesn’t really want to do it, and his girlfriend does her best to talk him out of it.  But then Tim meets Barry, and the decision becomes inevitable.

Barry, Steve Carell’s character, is an IRS adjuster and taxidermist who is obsessed with his hobby of making dioramas out of dead mice, which he calls “mouse-terpieces.”  The dioramas are actually kind of amazing and the most charming thing about the movie, so again the movie is showing its flaws if it’s asking us to laugh at him for these.  The solution is to up the ante on his obnoxious behavior – Barry is like a tick; once he attaches himself to you it’s nearly impossible to get him off, certainly with anything resembling polite discouragement.  Barry follows Tim around, offering opinions and observations and generally making his life more difficult.  In any other hands, this character would be unbearable, and honestly he still kinda is, but no one can touch Steve Carell’s ability to play clueless, socially-retarded guys who mean well but are constitutionally incapable of proper social behavior.

The reason to see Dinner For Schmucks is the tug-of-war between Paul Rudd and Steve Carell.  That’s it.  The movie is filled with names, a literal survey of today’s comedy landscape, and some come off better than others.  But the guys to watch are Rudd and Carell, total pros who play the friction and the friendship between their characters without a single false note.  The increasingly hysterical nature of the story becomes oppressive and even painful at times – I winced a lot at the hell that Rudd’s character endures – but the two of these guys get you through it.  That’s not to knock the rest of the cast (generally speaking.)

I liked Zach Galifianakis as… well I won’t spoil it.  He’s not in the movie for very long and he’s kind of a villain, but I’m just so happy that this guy is a huge comedy star now.  There’s no one else like him.  I also liked Stephanie Szostak as Tim’s girlfriend, the art curator with a decent heart.  I couldn’t tell if she was supposed to have a French accent or not and I was kind of obsessed by that (maybe someone who sees the movie can tell me?) but she’s very sweet and pretty.  I liked Jemaine Clement from Flight Of The Conchords as Kieran, the theatrical painter who she works with.   Tim is led to think that his girlfriend might be cheating on him with Kieran, but come on – the guy dresses up like a minotaur.  He’s never a credible romantic threat, but he is happily ridiculous.  The only thing I don’t get is why Tim never thinks to invite Kieran to the dinner for shmucks.  I also liked the trio of evil bosses: veteran character actor Bruce Greenwood, the awesome Ron Livingston (in a reversal of his Office Space character), and the underrated writer & comedian Larry Wilmore, who provides a droll commentary to the dinner concept and who I really wish was in the movie more.

I didn’t like Lucy Punch as the Courtney Love trainwreck of an ex-girlfriend who threatens Tim’s relationship – she goes for it, admirably, but I think it’s a disservice that the movie does to the actress by making her so resolutely and unflatteringly unlikable.  Walking out of the theater I heard some people calling her “hideous” and I don’t think it’s nice for a movie to do that to one of its actresses.  I also don’t like Jeff Dunham one bit, and it’s a sign of lowest-common-denominator pandering that he’s even in the movie, although at least he’s given almost nothing to do besides stand around looking stupid with his hand in a puppet’s ass.

I also think that Jay Roach’s direction is a little misguided.  The guy is a huge-name comedy director, and who am I to question it, but the reliance on close-ups was relentless.  It’s not as if any of these faces are unpleasant to look at, but that doesn’t mean that we have to be right up under their noses for the entire movie.  Seriously, once you notice this, it’s almost hilarious to watch.  The movie is almost all close-ups, and why?  Comedy doesn’t have to be visually complicated – the best thing to do, especially with performers this talented, is to just set up the camera and let them go.  But jeez, man, take a couple steps back.  You’re like Barry up in this piece.  Let me have my personal space.

So Dinner For Schmucks isn’t a classic.  It’s a fun night out at the movies, and has a sweetness by the end that suggests that this wouldn’t be a terrible choice for a date movie this weekend, but you won’t want to watch this one over and over.  This isn’t a quotable cornocupia like Carell & Rudd’s Anchorman or The 40 Year Old Virgin.  But like I said, I laughed a lot, and as a one-and-done experience, Dinner For Schmucks does the trick.