Thursday, August 5, 2010

Dinner for Schmucks: Who's the Bigger Schmuck?

Let’s start with this. What is a schmuck, exactly? It’s a Yiddish word with a dual meaning – both a dupe (as in, “what a schmuck” said the car dealer when he sold the guy a lemon) and an asshole (as in “what a schmuck” when that guy spills your soda as he crams past you at the baseball game).

Properly, the role played by Steve Carroll (as Barry) in this movie isn’t a schmuck, but a schlemiel. A schlemiel is a supremely careless guy, and a bit of a shut-in, who ruins everything he contacts. And a schlimazel is, in the old Jewish joke, “the person upon whom the schlemiel spills his soup.” That puts Paul Rudd (as Tim) in the role of the schlimazel whose life is nearly ruined by his encounter with Carroll’s schlemiel.

The set up, taken from an earlier French film (whose translation is roughly "dinner for dolts" - a more accurate description and a film which was, by the way, nominated for several awards), is this: Tim works for a wealthy hedge fund. He labors away on the entry-level 6th floor until one day, someone from the executive floor is fired, and there’s an opening for a promotion. Tim sees his chance and makes a move to pitch a German millionaire to take over his antiques business as a way of getting the firm to manage his money. The only catch is this: the executives on the 9th floor have this little ritual of “dinner for schmucks,” which is that they each find one laughable, oddball loser that they bring over for dinner at the CEO’s mansion, whereupon they have a contest to see which guest is the oddest. The one who has brought the “winner” wins the approbation of the group.

The problem with this movie is that it wants to have it both ways – it wants to both get some laughs out the oddballs, just like the executives, as well as romp in moral approbation that anyone would stoop to such a thing. The real “schmucks,” the movie wants to say, are the executives. Thus we get Tim’s disapproving girlfriend, a museum curator who herself Is a bit too involved with a pompous, hairy-chested Matthew-Barney type artist (Jemaine Clement, de-nerded from "Flight of the Concords"). Clement's Kieran gallumps through his modernist apartment with literally nothing but a fig leaf and hooves as he photographs himself in various stages of coitus with painted women, and I suppose he is meant to be a counterpart to the loser oddballs, suggesting there is a very fine line between kooks and geniuses.

If only the movie went with that. Instead, what happens is predictable sit-com. The girlfriend, carelessly drawn in by Kieran’s charisma, is also a bit of a downer (even though she’s French) who thinks this whole dinner idea is for the birds. After swearing to his girlfriend that he’d never stoop to such a low contest, Tim literally runs into Barry as he’s picking a mouse off the street for his latest mouse diorama. It’s a stroke of fate, or so Tim exclaims, and he’s just as quickly changed his mind and invited Barry to the dinner.

Then the movie veers completely off track and into some variation of Cable Guy, as Barry begins to ruin Tim’s life before they even get to the party. There are various stunts involving ex- girlfriends, tax auditors, the German millionaire, and a destroyed Porsche (the moment I first saw that nice car enter the fame I knew it was toast). All of this seems completely off track as we haven’t even had dinner and the only schmuck, it seems, was me for buying a ticket.

Things pick up once the ensemble cast of schlemiels, schlimazels, schmucks, and oddballs all assemble for dinner, but really, aside from some nice moments of fake hypnotization, not much funny happens. The script seems too concerned with both trying to entertain us with oddball behavior and turning the schmucky executives into bad-guys for wanting to be entertained by various ho-hum losers. That puts the audience in a weird place of both being the schmuck and the schlimazel (and with Carroll's schlemiel, as the picture's centerpiece, never quite achieving either endearing quirkiness or the existential threat that say, Jim Carrey does in Cable Guy), and the movie never develops a coherent message.

The real problem here is that the movie lacks the courage of its premise. What would be funny would be to go with the idea of laughing at oddballs and take it, unembarrassed, to its logical conclusion. What would that say about our current elite? Are there really, perhaps, people who are just too weird to be lovable? Either, or both, of those would be interesting social commentary ripe for mining some nice satire.

I have a feeling the original film may have gone for the jugular like that. Instead, in this washed out Americanized version, the movie wants to take the politically correct, inoffensive approach of loving everyone’s weirdness and condemning the oafish rich (Tim ends up the movie losing his job, but he’s happier for it). It’s inoffensive, all right, but it just isn’t true. And neither is it funny, very much.

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