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Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2010

Dinner for Schmucks

Steve Carell, Paul Rudd’s winning corporate comedy

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In Billy Wilder’s classic film The Apartment, Jack Lemmon played a junior executive whose advancement was keyed to loaning out his rooms to an ice-hearted boss for nocturnal sexual adventures. In Dinner for Schmucks, Paul Rudd plays a junior exec whose promotion is tied to bringing the most idiotic person he can find to a dinner party at the boss’ mansion, playing the poor man for an unwitting court jester to a management team with hearts as cold as cash.

A soft satire of office competition and corporate climbing, Dinner for Schmucks is also a comedy of errors that—except for a couple of overheated, silly scenes—is consistently funny. Tim (Rudd) runs into his idiot—literally—on the street. Barry (Steve Carell) is in the road trying to retrieve a dead mouse for his taxidermy rodent collection. He carefully assembles lavish dioramas of mice in human settings, stitching clothing and painstakingly bending wire for spectacles. Barry is an outsider artist without knowing it, in total contrast to the pretentiously egomaniacal painter and performance artist Kieran (Jemaine Clement), whose work is being represented by Tim’s sparkling girlfriend, Julie (Stephanie Szostak). When Tim’s engagement plans unravel in a series of comic mishaps, Julie considers sharing the wild life with Kieran.

But romance is only a subplot in a film about innocence and cruelty. Tim knows that bringing Barry to a fancy party only to make fun of him is wrong, yet the lure of money and a higher position in his equity management firm is a strong current that is hard to swim against. For his part, Barry is unaware of what’s about to befall him. Although not without a streak of mischief, he’s essentially guileless, walking through a child’s world of wonder without getting the irony, the sarcasm, the subterfuge of adult life. While Schmucks is based on the French film The Dinner Game, Carell brings a deeper resonance to his character, if one cares to look. He’s almost a contemporary comical rendition of Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot.

Dinner for Schmucks pulls off a neat Hollywood trick, allowing the audience to laugh at the unfortunate Barry while mocking his pompous tormentors. The tone is light but not without bittersweet moments, and although the hilariously out-of-step Barry steals every scene, the protagonist is actually Tim, an everyman in a suit forced to ponder at what price success.

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