DINNER FOR SCHMUCKS (12A) Director: Jay Roach Running time: 114 minutes * *
IT TAKES more than half the film before dinner is served in Dinner For Schmucks, but that's still pretty good going compared with the 1998 French film it's based on. In Le Dner De Cons, the meal never arrives. In Dinner For Schmucks it's a long banquet of aggressive absurdity that takes some digesting.
In both movies, however, the dinner in question has a theme set by a company boss (Bruce Greenwood) to amuse his snobby friends. Every guest must bring along the stupidest, most pathetic idiot they can find as their plus one. The biggest numpty wins all manner of corporate favours. Mime acts are frowned on, however: "It's a clich."
In France, this sets up some broad barbs about intellectual snobbery. In Jay Roach's version, it's another castigation of corporate ladder-climbing weasels, although the remake chooses to soften some of the nastier elements. For instance, Paul Rudd's Tim only agrees to bring a dinner date because a promotion at work might finally persuade his nice girlfriend to marry him. And rather than him having to seek out a prize-winning chump, Barry (Steve Carell) literally crashes into him, and hooks Tim when he reveals his passion in life is creating "mouseterpieces": handmade tableaux of stuffed dead mice in teeny costumes that have been handmade by Barry. They are the funniest thing in the film, but they also look delicate, sweet and meticulous, rather than the work of an idiot.
When he's finally brought to the hectically farcical dinner, his fellow competitors include a blind man who fancies himself a champion swordsman (The IT Crowd's Chris O'Dowd), a pet psychic (Octavia Spencer), a guy who feeds his pet vulture mouth-to-mouth (Patrick Fischler), all of them hamming it up like contestants for The X Factor. Again: are these people idiots or could they be accurately covered by "maladjusted freak"?
In fact, the pedantic semantics police could make a few useful arrests as this film wears on and on, and the prime collar is whoever it was in the studio who signed off using the word "schmuck", a breathtaking piece of Yiddish that translates as something a bit more hardcore than idiot, and rather pointedly is never used in the film.
Admittedly "con" won't win you any new French friends either, but Barry is too kind-hearted to qualify as any of the above. The way he's played here, he's more of a pile-up of social dysfunctions and disasters, from his comedy teeth and preposterous toupee to his uncanny ability to wreck Tim's home, body and relationship with his girlfriend. Soon Barry has made Tim's life a misery, and after about an hour of Dinner For Schmucks you know exactly how that feels.
Why didn't Carell notice how lame this comedy is? Does he have the same management as Owen Wilson?
On general release from Friday
• This article was first published in the Scotland on Sunday on August 29, 2010