Dinner for Schmucks (PG-13) ★★★

Review Date: December 20th, 2010

Dinner for Schmucks is based on a French film, but don't hold that against it. Its similarities to Le Diner de Cons, Francis Veber's 1998 farce about a group of cynical publishing executives who host a weekly "dinner for idiots," are primarily conceptual. To make it suitable for American audiences, director Jay Roach (of Austin Powers and Meet the Parents fame) and screenwriters David Guion and Michael Handelman safely cleansed their big-budget adaptation of any smoking, philandering, "mean-spiritedness," or any other icky behavior that might make some of us Yanks uncomfortable. Whew.

Preeminent straight man Paul Rudd (Role Models, I Love You Man) plays Tim, an ambitious young investment banker on the verge of joining the elite ranks at his firm. But in order to be fully inducted into the executive inner circle, he must first participate in a peculiar ritual called the "Dinner for Winners," a monthly event hosted by his boss, Lance (Bruce Greenwood), to which each attendee is charged with bringing a high-functioning dimwit for the rest of the guests to ridicule. More than just a company tradition, it's an opportunity for high-climbers like Tim to prove their mettle in an area crucial to the success of stereotypically cutthroat businessmen: exhibiting callous disregard for those who exist on the fringes of society. Needless to say, attendance at the dinner is not optional.

Tim believes he's found the ideal dinner guest when he literally runs into Barry (Steve Carell), a clumsy, bespectacled IRS employee whose great passion in life involves staging elaborate dioramas with taxidermic mice. Several of Barry's exquisitely strange creations, dubbed "mouseterpieces," are depicted in the film's opening sequence, which proudly nods to the intricate quirk of Wes Anderson. (Its soundtrack even apes his musical tastes, playing an obscure song from a legendary rock band: the Beatles' Fool on the Hill, a melancholy little number that cost a paltry $1.5 million to license.)

That's where the comparisons to Anderson's work end. As a director, Roach's greatest asset has always been his ability to assemble a group of talented comic actors and hand them the reigns, trusting that they'll produce enough funny material for him to sow together into a relatively cohesive piece. It's what fueled Roach's better works, like the first Austin Powers flick, and it's ultimately what saves Dinner for Schmucks from falling victim to the director's less admirable qualities, namely, a penchant for contrived and predictable situational humor, an over-reliance on cheap physical and sight gags, and a general disregard for plot and pacing.

Carell has carved a lucrative niche for himself playing charmingly oblivious goofballs of varying levels of competence, and he earns every dime of his reported $15 million paycheck in this film. Rudd's character, for all his caustic wit, isn't nearly as manipulative or amoral as his French counterpart; we never truly believe him capable of deliberately humiliating an innocent like Barry, even if he does drive a Porsche.

But they labor heroically to make the most of their suboptimal comedic circumstances, forming an amiable, intermittently hilarious odd-couple dynamic as Tim struggles to contain the chaos wrought by Barry. That, combined with the efforts of Jemaine Clement and Zach Galifianakis, both sublime in supporting roles, are what ultimately what elevate the film above its meagre material. These are guys who could send us into hysterics reading a grocery list, which in this case would constitute an upgrade over the Dinner for Schmucks screenplay.

Hollywood.com rated this film 3 stars.