I’d like to extoll the virtues of a great comedy, but this isn’t it. A word of explanation: I come to Dinner for Schmucks at a disadvantage, because I love the French film on which it’s based, The Dinner Game (1998). I’ve also heard its creator, the brilliant writer-director Francis Veber, describe his filmmaking philosophy, and criticize Hollywood colleagues for always wanting to expand and complicate his material. (The Birdcage is the best translation ever made of a Veber property, but I still prefer his original, La Cage aux Folles.)
In spite of this, I honestly tried to approach Dinner for Schmucks with an open mind. I like the casting of Paul Rudd and especially Steve Carell, who—
—hits just the right notes as an idiot who has no idea just how stupid or annoying he is. But it all boils down to this: the movie didn’t make me laugh.
In the original, the Rudd character is the perpetrator of the insult: a dinner in which each cocky participant brings the stupidest guest he can find. Here, Rudd is a nice guy who’s been forced into this position by his arrogant and unfeeling boss (Bruce Greenwood). And in this adaptation we actually see the dinner, with its idiots and their sniggering “sponsors.” The original was clever enough to focus on just the two principal characters.
Veber’s farces—some of which, like this one, began their life on stage—are honed to perfection and unfold with the precision of a Swiss watch. I could see the wheels turning in Dinner for Schmucks. It isn’t terrible, by any means, but it lacks a lightness of touch.
I’m sure director Jay Roach and his screenwriters, David Guion and Michael Handelman, gave this project their best shot; it’s been in development for years. Perhaps people who have no awareness of Veber or French farce will have a different opinion, but this film did nothing for me.