Dinner for Schmucks

Posted on January 4, 2011 at 8:00 am

The truest comedy is the laugh of recognition and enlightenment. You won’t find much of that in this crass and crude remake of the French film, “The Dinner Game.” What you will find instead is that easier and far less satisfying category of humor — the smug laughter at someone’s expense. The problem is that this movie’s entire premise is that making fun of people who have dorky personalities is, as expressed twice by characters we are supposed to identify with, “messed up.” Therefore, it is especially icky that it tries to have it both ways, asking us to laugh at the bozos and then asking us to feel superior to the movie characters who are doing the exactly same thing.

In the French film, the main character is a wealthy man who has a competition with his friends to see who can bring the biggest loser to dinner. And so of course he has to learn some lessons about who the loser really is. But this is America, and our good guy can’t really be a big old meanie, even at the beginning of the film. So, we begin by casting Mr. Nice Guy, Paul Rudd as Tim, an analyst for a private equity firm desperate to get a promotion. His good-guy reluctance takes most of the emotional and narrative energy out of the story. When the big boss (Bruce Greenwood) gives him a chance to move up and he finds out it involves participating in the dinner-with-a-dork competition, he instantly and correctly identifies this as messed up, but then, when he literally bumps into a perfect specimen, he decides it must be fate, and invites him to the dinner.

The dork (I refuse to call him a shmuck, which is a Yiddish term that literally means a part of the male anatomy and metaphorically means a bad — as in untrustworthy — guy, not a foolish or nerdy one) is Barry, played by Steve Carell, having way too much fun with his fake teeth. Barry’s hobby is stuffing dead mice (yes, he is an amateur taxidermist, just like Norman Bates) and creating dioramas for them based on classic works of art and historical events. But once again, the movie can’t make its mind up whose side it is on, and the idea may be appalling but the renditions are actually quite lovely. (In the French film, the guy makes replicas of famous buildings from matchsticks.)

Despite Carell’s best efforts, Barry is not a character. He is just an engine for creating humiliating experiences for Tim. The essential inconsistency of his behavior and capacity obstructs any comedic pleasure in predicting what is going to happen. It’s as though we have to be continually re-introduced to him. On the other hand, one-note supporting characters like Tim’s stalker would-be girlfriend (wasting the talents of the delectable Lucy Punch), Barry’s colleague (Zach Galifianakis), and an oleaginous artist (Jermaine Clement) quickly become tiresome.

Here’s an idea for a movie — how about the story of a talented French writer/director who meets with Hollywood executives who want to re-make his excellent comedies like “The Toy,” “The Dinner Game,” “The Tall Blond Man With One Black Shoe,” and many more, into over-budgeted and under-funny comedies by clumsy Americans. Now, that is a dinner for schmucks.

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Comedy Remake

19 Replies to “Dinner for Schmucks”

  1. Nell,
    Great points as always. I, too, was quite disappointed with this film. My review basically talks about the comedy and the attempted deeper story, so it was refreshing to hear your comments about the content too.
    I thought it was way too long, the attempt at a deep narrative and complex characters falls flat and the result is a few funny scenes separated by a lot of dull moments in between. I call it a “barely average comedy.”

  2. who ever wrote this article must have the worst sense of humor ever, this movie kept me, my friends, and everyone in the whole theater laughing. seriously why would you describe a movie like that.

  3. Destrey, I’m glad you wrote because I am always glad when someone sees more in a movie than I do. But keep in mind that you won’t persuade anyone with a comment that relies on an insult instead of making some sort of case about why it was funny. I’d love to hear about what you thought was funny and why; you can see in my review what I thought did and did not work, which is the answer to your question.

  4. Very skimpy attire, Katie, including female private parts covered only with body make-up and a woman’s tush in a sheer pantie. As noted in the review, there are also explicit and clinical sexual references (including group sex and sex games) and crude comments.

  5. Well, I thought it was very funny. It allows for people aka the “Schmucks” to rise above, and even laugh at themselves. Also, there seems to be an insult even within your article calling the “schmucks” as “people with dorky personalities.” I personally found Barry to be endearing and quirky. The characters all showed a sort of realism that is conveyed through humor, not humor used to exploit people. I think it is wrong to rate a movie based on the purist ideals that have very little relevancy in today’s society. My feeling is that although this type of humor is hard for some people to grasp, it is easily understood for the majority of people including the youth of today, and allows for some message to be shown rather than shoved down ones throat. And children are learning about things anyway, Sexual Education is part of grade schools now if you want to shelter your children and be as overbearing as possible be my guest, but in the end who is going to be the “schmuck”?

  6. Great comment, coaly! I’m glad you found the movie funny and it appears you also found its message appealing as well. I’m always happy when someone sees more in a movie than I do.
    I think the term “dorky” is far less insulting than “schmucks” — but as you can see on the other posts, I am a passionate Comic-Con-going fangirl myself, and thus have a great appreciation for dorky and quirky people, and may even qualify myself.
    At times, the Barry character was endearing in his sincerity and loyalty. But, as I said in my review, most of the time I did not think he was a consistent character at all, just a series of whatever characteristic served to create the most trouble at any given moment. And, as I also said in my review, I thought the message was mixed, asking us to laugh at the characters and feel bad about laughing at them at the same time.
    There’s a difference between being overbearing and protecting children from material that they are too young to be exposed to. I don’t think you are saying that this movie is for kids, or that it constitutes “sexual education.” We may disagree about the appropriate age (I recommended it for mature teens-adults) but I think we would agree that its crude sexual humor is not intended for or appropriate for grade school-age kids.
    As I said, I am glad you enjoyed the film. I hope you will see the French original version, which I liked a lot. Thanks again, and I’d love it if you would comment again on the movies you see, whether you agree with my reviews or not.

  7. Nell, I saw this movie yesterday (sans teenaged daughter, thank God!) and I notice that whenever I see movies like this, I get so incredibly uncomfortable that I want to leave the theatre. it’s not the raunchiness of it—it’s watching the humiliation/anticipation of painful situations that I have trouble with. I am glad I stayed until the end–because watching the dinner scene made me want to cheer for Barry! I thought it was masterful the way Paul Rudd’s character evolved–I should have known it would end this way, because Paul Rudd always seems to play characters that redeem themselves, no matter how bad his behavior/consequences. What is interesting to me is observing my own reaction to it. I did laugh in spite of myself at certain parts. All in all I wouldn’t have rated it with as low a grade as you did—the finish made up for much of the painfulness of the characters like darla and kieran–in the end, all was right with the world (even if it was a strange world)
    Love your reviews! Happy 15th anniversary.

  8. Thanks, Nancy! I’m glad you enjoyed it. I admit I laughed a few times, too. I might have been less tough on it if I had not appreciated the original. But it is impossible not to see how much fun Rudd and Carell are having. I hope they are in a better movie next time. And I’m glad your daughter stayed home!

  9. You might wanna look up the origin of the word “Dork” before you replace schmuck with it.

  10. Like most slang insults, “Dork” has a vulgar meaning as well, Kris. But its definition when used as an insult to describe someone’s personality is offbeat, weird, goofy, as opposed to schmuck, which implies that the person is more intentionally mean or untrustworthy. What word would would you suggest?

  11. My husband, 22 yr old daughter and I saw this last weekend. We love Steve Carell, that is one of the reasons we decided to go. I must admit it was one of the worst movies I have ever seen. I gave it a 1.5 out of 10. Granted I did laugh a couple of times, but those few seconds of laughter were not worth the many minutes of crudeness. Steve needs to set his sights a bit higher. He is too good to be involved in these low rated movies.
    Oh, I thought the mice were cute:-)
    Thanks for your reviews

  12. Thanks, Kathy. I am sorry you suffered through this movie but glad to see you agreed with my review. As you can see, I liked the mice, too!

  13. Based on your definition of “schmuck,” maybe it is intended to be ironic, referring instead to the people who bring the “dorks” to the dinner. Thanks for your review. I think we will go see Inception instead.

  14. Nell, this was one of the few times I did not consult your review before seeing a movie w/my 14 y.o. and boy, will I never do that again! Myself and two friends were HORRIFIED at the language,crudeness,and explicitness of this film. It may have been acceptable if we had gone ourselves (and expected that sort of thing w/an R rating), but we had brought the kids. We kept asking ourselves, is this really PG 13? did we make some kind of mistake? maybe it’s R? we actually double checked when we left. I understand there was no actual nudity or swear words but the situations, expressions etc were so crude and vulgar we were MORTIFIED! I will never go sans Nell again! have FB’d you to them and all other moms as well, appreciate your reviews, they are right on…
    also, is it me/us, or do you think this should have been “R” as well? What exactly are the standards now? I’ll never trust the ratings board again; forget the MPAA, Nell Minnow’s the only accurate review/rating system for moms/families! Thank you for your service to families!

  15. AGREED! This was probably the WORST movie I have ever seen. If you like the kind of humor that has obvious, painful situations, then this is the movie for you. The situations were similar to “Meet The Parents” where you knew exactly what unfortunate event was going to happen, but it was not funny. It was in fact, painful to watch. It was the equivalent of watching a bad horror movie where you scream at the TV, begging the victim not to run upstairs.
    This was such a bad movie, we turned it off long before the dinner scene as we just couldn’t take it anymore. It wasn’t worth wasting another minute of our lives.

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