With Steve Carell, Paul Rudd, Stephanie Szostak, Bruce Greenwood, Zach Galifianakis. Directed by Jay Roach. Rated PG-13 for sequences of crude and sexual content, some partial nudity and language. 109 minutes.
Humiliation is in. That’s why movies like “Meet The Parents” and “The Hangover” became such hits. Watching other people being degraded and made to look ridiculous appeals to some people. “Glad it’s not me,” the viewer might say, or perhaps, “What a spineless dope – I’d never allow that.” It’s quite different from movies with hapless heroes. From Chaplin to Laurel and Hardy to Jerry Lewis to Seth Rogen, those are movies where we’re rooting for the underdog. In humiliation comedies, what we’re doing is enjoying watching them squirm.
Such is the case with DINNER FOR SCHMUCKS, which will be remembered if no other reason than that it crossed a line in using a vulgar Yiddish expression for dopes which, literally, means “penis,” and putting it in the title of a major Hollywood release. The old Hollywood moguls, most of whom were Jewish, would plotz.
The film is a remake of the French movie “The Dinner Game,” but is much nastier. The premise remains the same. A bunch of businessmen have a regular dinner party where each has to bring an outrageously clueless guest. The most ridiculous and pathetic one is declared the “winner,” unaware the hosts are making fun of them. Tim (Paul Rudd) sees the invitation by his boss (Bruce Greenwood) as his chance to advance his career, but his girlfriend Julie (Stephanie Szostak) finds it offensive and demands he not do it. However when he literally runs into Barry (Steve Carell), a nitwit who makes dioramas using dead mice, he decides to go ahead.
Much of the film involves the aggressively stupid Barry wreaking havoc in Tim’s life. Tim is humiliated in front of his girlfriend, important clients, and even total strangers. Barry also tries to convince Tim that Julie is having an affair with the eccentric artist (Jemaine Clement) whose show she is curating. Director Jay Roach, who similarly tortured Ben Stiller in “Meet The Parents” and “Meet The Fockers” (the latter a title that came closest to crossing the line that this one scampers over), gleefully destroys Tim’s life. It’s all a build up to the “dinner” of the title, where both Tim and Barry will have to confront rivals and decide what’s really important.
The problem is the sappy “let’s all love and respect each other” ending simply isn’t believable after the crass and vulgar behavior that we’ve endured. It feels like it was tacked on merely to end the film on an “up” note. Audiences – and some critics – will be won over by Carell’s sunny Tim, who really doesn’t get that he’s an idiot. His own humiliation by his boss (Zach Galifianakis) is so ridiculously contrived that anyone who buys it had better make sure they don’t get invited to be a guest of honor at one of these dinners.
Hollywood used to produced great comedies that made you laugh until your sides ached and didn’t make you feel like you just paid for a lap dance. “Dinner For Schmucks” may entertain some people, but don’t be surprised if you feel vaguely unclean afterwards.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being I’ll Have What She’s Having: Behind The Scenes Of The Great Romantic Comedies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.