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'Dinner for Schmucks' Leaves Sour Aftertaste

What a disheartening spectacle we have in Dinner for Schmucks, the latest comedy since April’s Date Night to squander Steve Carell’s impeccable timing and frantic, Clouseau-like cluelessness.

For better and more often worse, we see in Barry, his latest on-screen buffoon, a character reminiscent of Michael Scott, the deluded desk jockey he plays on NBC’s The Office. Nearly paralyzed by his own stupidity, hopelessly oblivious in every aspect of his modest existence, Barry is a tragic figure, in part because of the pain behind his manic grin, and in part because he’s so easy to despise.

You want to empathize with him, this lonely man broken by a callous wife, left to recreate memories and fantasies with the stuffed mice he poses so lovingly in his homemade dioramas. Yet to know Barry is to loathe him. He is a caricature so far-fetched, so utterly insufferable, that one might reasonably question whether he is human at all.

Loosely inspired by the acid French comedy Le Diner de Cons, Schmucks wants us to feel conflicted about accepting its many invitations to laugh at Barry, shell of a man that he is. The problem is that Barry, for all his mind-numbing missteps, isn’t funny. Annoying? Infuriating? You bet. But never does he feel like a person so much as a gag reel.

Not everyone will agree. At the screening I attended, roughly half the crowd roared at every pratfall and sitcom-style misunderstanding. The other half sat in stony silence, interrupted only by a handful of disgruntled customers making an early exit, hissing their disapproval along the way.

They didn’t miss much. To its detriment, Jay Roach’s remake lacks the savagery of Francis Veber’s 1999 original. In both, a group of wealthy elitists throw a dinner party, competing with each other to find the biggest idiot for the evening’s entertainment. Tim, a rising executive played by the affable Paul Rudd, reluctantly invites Barry to the party, eager to impress his arrogant boss (Bruce Greenwood) and reasoning, astutely, that he’s found a winner.
 
But Tim is likable enough that his inevitable comeuppance seems more a concession to the mechanics of a well-worn plot than a lesson overdue. Just because he wants a corner office doesn’t mean he’s willing to sell his soul to get it. And If anyone deserves the indignities heaped on him, it’s Barry, who clings to Tim like a simpering parasite.

Rudd, a gifted comedian who previously co-starred with Carell in the Judd Apatow-produced comedies Anchorman and The 40-Year-Old Virgin, plays the straight man here, giving Carell’s idiot savant just enough rope to keep the movie tied up in knots with his increasingly desperate antics.

The fault isn’t Carell’s, though. It lies with a script, written by David Guion and Michael Handelman (The Ex), that fails to understand its characters and hypocritically decries their boorishness while unself-consciously parading its own – a comedy of bad manners that insults nothing except our intelligence.