Another of French social farce specialist Francis (“La Cage Aux Folles”) Veber’s films gets the Americanized treatment with “Dinner for Schmucks,” and while the U.S. version of “Le Diner de Cons” (aka “The Dinner Game”) has its moments of heart and hilarity, it loses a lot in translation — namely, Veber’s smart, barbed wit.
That’s traded for the broadest of comedy and over-the-top silliness in the hands of director Jay Roach (the “Austin Powers” and “Fockers” series) and writers David Guion and Michael Handelman. But in large part that’s not so bad, since few actors spin screwball comedy better than Steve Carell.
He’s reteamed here with “Anchorman” and “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” co-star Paul Rudd, who plays Tim Conrad, a low-rung financial analyst who has a shot at a promotion when he’s invited to a monthly dinner party at the mansion of his elitist boss (Bruce Greenwood). The catch: Tim has to bring along the weirdest fool he can find as a guest, to be laughed at and mocked by the host.
“That’s messed up,” Tim tells himself — until he runs into lonely Barry Speck (Carell), literally, with his Porsche, when Speck steps out into traffic to save a dead mouse.
Save a dead mouse?
Yes, it seems this geeky IRS employee’s hobby is stuffing dead mice, dressing them up in tiny human outfits and posing them in miniature scenarios resembling famous works of art, great moments in history and even events he wishes for in his own empty life.
Conscience begone. Tim can’t pass up this surefire ticket to the schmuck-of-the-month trophy and career advancement. He invites Barry to join the lineup of losers, and the amateur taxidermist eagerly accepts, unaware that he’s in for an evening of ridicule.
Of course, this puts Tim at odds with his girl, Julie (Stephanie Szostak), who just might leave him for egocentric, womanizing performance artist Kieran Vollard (Jemaine Clement of “Flight of the Conchords” in a great deadpan turn), and Tim’s scheme backfires even bigger when the well-meaning Barry, thinking he’s found a new best friend, unintentionally turns Tim’s life into a shambles.
Then comes the night of the dinner game, with a roster of rejects that includes Marco the Blind Swordsman (Chris O’Dowd), Lewis the Ventriloquist (Jeff Dunham), whose drunken “wife” (a bawdily dressed dummy) flirts with every male at the table, Madame Nora the Pet Psychic (Octavia Spencer) and Therman, a master of “brain control” (an achingly funny Zach Galifianakis).
As his boss and colleagues laugh up their sleeves at this eccentric crowd, Tim finally begins to realize who the real schmucks are around the fancy dining room table. And they’re about to get their comeuppance.
Things do become tiresomely outrageous in the third act of this fool’s fest, and most of the audience will be way past ready to be excused from the table when the end credits start to roll, but the film manages to hammer home a worthwhile message that calls to mind the words to an old B.B. King tune: “Man, be careful with a fool / You know, someday he may get smart.”
- Gene Triplett
Starring: Steve Carell, Paul Rudd, Jemaine Clement, Zach Galifianakis, Stephanie Szostak, Bruce Greenwood, Ron Livingston.
(Sequences of crude and sexual content, some partial nudity and language)