You'll remember that critics only provide their personal opinions on things, even when they make grand pronouncements like "This is unquestionably the best (or worst) film of the year." I remind you of that because I find comedy above all the hardest genre to review. What may knock me over with laughter might not affect you in the same way. Take the case of the screwball comedy "Dinner for Schmucks," 2010, from director Jay Roach ("Austin Powers," "Meet the Parents"). A couple of lines and a couple of scenes struck me as funny; the rest was just killing time.
How well you enjoy "Dinner for Schmucks" may depend upon how much you like one of its two primary stars, Steve Carell. If you don't find his deadpan humor funny, you may wind up hating this picture. Indeed, even if you like Steve Carell, you may not like his truly annoying character in this movie.
The film's basic premise is based on a cruel joke: Once a month the executives of a financial institution get together for a dinner at the boss's mansion, where each of the colleagues must bring a new and special person as a guest. However, the guests must be idiots: that is, complete losers in some way or another. At the end of the evening they award a prize to the biggest idiot, presenting it to the person as an honor for being so "special." What's more, they ridicule these guests all evening, and the guests who don't get the joke--the ones who don't understand that people are making fun of them--are most likely to win the top prize. Understand, these are grown people conducting these parties, supposedly mature, intelligent adults, mocking and hurting other people.
Naturally, we can see in a minute where the movie is going with this premise. The tables will eventually get turned, and the idiots will have their day. The "schmucks" at the dinner party are really the executives themselves playing such an insensitive game. Still, it's a hard pill to swallow as it's going down, trying to believe in such a ludicrous idea and knowing how it's going to turn out.
OK, so Tim Conrad (Paul Rudd) is a young, ambitious, upwardly mobile executive in this financial organization whom the boss (Bruce Greenwood, playing his usual smug, abrasive character) invites for the first time to one of these parties, asking him to be sure to bring a real idiot along. Tim finds the idea repulsive, as does his fiancée, Julie (Stephanie Szostak), but he realizes if he hopes to rise in the company, he's got do as the boss wants. But who to ask?
That's when Tim runs into Barry (Steve Carell). Literally. Tim hits Barry with his Porsche as Barry is crossing the street to salvage a dead mouse from the middle of the street. You see, Barry's hobby is building little dioramas with dead mice in them: dead, stuffed mice in costumes. He calls them "mouseterpieces." Tim figures it's fate; Barry is unhurt, and Tim has found his man.
Seizing on the opportunity, Tim instantly makes friends with Barry and invites him to the party the next night, asking him to be sure to bring along his dioramas for a presentation. Little does Tim know that Barry is not only eccentric in his hobby, he's a total idiot in the rest of his life as well. Barry creates havoc, chaos, everywhere he goes, and he's oblivious to anything anyone says to him about it.
Now, here's the thing: Barry is not really an idiot. He works for the IRS, and his mouse designs are clever and creative. So, yeah, he's intelligent. Yet most of the time he acts like an idiot. In fact, at times he seems almost mentally challenged. What are we to make of this? Now, if Barry were a truly lovable idiot, we might pity him and even root for him. Except that for most of the movie Barry is simply obnoxious. Sure, there is a gushy ending where the filmmakers try to generate some sympathy for the character, portraying him as a well-meaning moron, but it's almost too little, too late.
Meanwhile, because the one party and the one idiot are not enough to carry a whole movie, we get a subplot about Tim's fiancée, who thinks Tim's cheating on her; and we get a weird, horny, narcissistic, self-absorbed artist (Jermaine Clement) who's so conceited he paints himself into every picture he makes; and we get Barry's boss at the IRS (Zach Galifianakis), who thinks he can exercise mind control over people; and we get one of Tim's old flames who stalks him constantly; etc. These are not just the colorful characters you need in a screwball comedy; they're exaggerations meant to kill time.
"Dinner for Schmucks" has a couple of good moments, including a funny and touching speech Barry makes during the party, but for the most part it goes downhill after the first half hour. Rudd makes a good straight man, but he's in it alone too much, so there are long stretches where nothing even approaching funniness happens. The first half of the movie is merely silly and mildly amusing. The second half, with the exception of the party scene, disintegrates into the ridiculous, the mood changing by the minute from outlandishly ludicrous to almost solemnly serious. It doesn't make for an easy comedy to watch.
There doesn't appear to be anything wrong with the transfer, even though the picture quality looks only average for high definition. I suspect the Blu-ray disc does its best with what its given, the Paramount engineers using an MPEG-4 codec and a dual-layer BD50 to reproduce the image. The screen is very clean, as it should be with a new movie, and its very bright and a little glossy, which only tends to reinforce its comparison to a television product. Detail is slightly soft, and object delineation is a tad rough around the edges, with a somewhat flat look. There are good colors, though, with fairly natural skin tones, the hues quite deep and rich, although in some scenes maybe a little too deep and too rich.
You'll find almost nothing but dialogue in the film, so a monaural track would probably have sufficed. However, we get lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sonics, overkill to be sure, but I'm confident videophiles would have it no other way. Besides, you can never go wrong with lossless sound. Midrange response is smooth and realistic, deepest bass and highest treble is almost completely missing, and the surround channels get very little exercise except for an occasional doorbell and a little musical bloom.
There is pretty much the usual stuff among the extras, starting with "The Biggest Schmuck in the World," about fifteen minutes on the cast and the making of the film. Next is "The Men Behind the Mouseterpieces," about eleven minutes on the mouse designs, followed by "Meet the Winners," about four minutes on the special people in the film, with the actors in character. Then there are about nine minutes of "deleted scenes; followed by Schmuck Ups," eight minutes of outtakes and goofs; and "Paul and Steve: The Decision," about four minutes of further silliness from ESPN. It's mostly all promotional material, none of it revealing much about the actual movie or its characters.
The extras conclude with eighteen scene selections; bookmarks; English, French, Portuguese, and Spanish spoken languages and subtitles; and English audio descriptions and English captions for the hearing impaired.
Think of "Dinner for Schmucks" as a cross between the Farrelly brothers' "Dumb & Dumber" and Tod Browning's "Freaks," but without the laughs of the former or the sentiment of the latter. While "Dinner for Schmucks" has a few humorous moments, the characters are either so bizarre or so stereotyped and the tone so changeable, it's hard to like the movie as a whole. It just never comes together very well.