'Classâ?� is not the first word that comes to mind when dealing with a movie containing the word 'schmucksâ?� in its title, but that is the surprising throughline coursing through Dinner for Schmucks, a remake of Francis Veber's 1998 French farce The Dinner Game (which I have not seen).Â
More than Schmucks' dazzling production design by Frost/Nixon's Michael Corenblith, which prominently features taxidermic dioramas of dead mice posed in romantic environs 'Â 'mouseterpieces,â?� as they're accurately described ' the dark comedy manages knowing jabs at the arts community as well as riffs on status perception, romantic quibbles and winking comedy-of-error exaggerations. Of course, this being a Steve Carell vehicle, these moments of elevated humor coexist alongside crass gags, but not as uncomfortably as you might think.Â
Paul Rudd plays Tim, a nice guy who works his way up the corporate ladder until he bumps into an outrageous ethical wall: His would-be peers on 'the seventh floorâ?� 'Â one of the film's nice Wilderian nods ' hinge his promotion on a special-invite dinner in which the masters of the company's universe host various freaks and geeks for their own amusement. Tim's job is to find an 'idiotâ?� with a special skill to play the fool for them.Â
Before he has a chance to say no, a priceless fool named Barry (Carell) steps in front of Tim's car and smacks headfirst into his life. Barry is a taxidermy hobbyist with both the potential for great art and great folly, a dense and needy loner incapable of picking up on basic societal cues. Tim invites him to the dinner and, unknowingly, into his life as a whole, a mistake that quickly wreaks unfathomable havoc for Tim, professionally and personally.Â
It's a setup that disguises a landmine for the filmmakers involved; one that could blow up in their faces at any moment in a fireball of unlikability. So it's even more surprising that it's Jay Roach of Meet the Parents and Austin Powers fame/infamy who steps so expertly around the danger here, aided by the screenwriting team of David Guion and Michael Handelman. With such a long haul toward character sympathy, it's forgivable when Schmucks overcompensates, whether on the lowbrow end (Zach Galifianakis and Lucy Punch ham up their supporting roles to nearly excruciating levels) or the highbrow (Tim's suffering girlfriend's role is that of an emotional ping- pong ball).
For the majority of the film, however, Roach and co. walk the ethical tightrope with expert maneuvering, imbuing Carell's Barry with an effectively tender core and Rudd's Tim with the gradual awareness that his duty is to protect that innocence, not exploit it. The way this conflict resolves at the fateful dinner 'Â which thankfully receives relatively little screen time ' is sensitive, smart and unexpected. Basic cinematic language dictates that Tim must stand up for Barry, but the way the filmmakers go about it without shying away from opportunism, is downright classy.Â