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.
In a movie that is nothing if not ambiguous it’s only fitting that the title is misleading: The “ex” is only a former friend/fling. At least something’s mildly amusing. It starts out straightforward enough with slacker Tom (Zach Braff) being fired from his job as a chef after a food fight with his boss (a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him Paul Rudd). But with his wife Sofia (Amanda Peet) about to give birth poverty just won’t do. So they move from Manhattan to more economical Ohio where Tom takes up his father-in-law (Charles Grodin) on a standing offer to work for him in a job that Tom expects to be a regular nine-to-fiver. But as Tom immediately discovers this is no normal desk job and these are not normal coworkers. He gets off to a rough start with his supervisor wheelchair-bound Chip (Jason Bateman) after eating his yogurt. Further complicating matters it turns out Chip had a crush on and one-night-stand with Sofia back in high school—even though he’s the “ex” the title refers to—and is apparently now jealous. So he makes Tom’s life miserable and some off-the-wall variation of the standard formula ensues: Everyone believes Chip over Tom Tom loses Sofia and her father loses his job. Now he has to win back his father-in-law’s job and his wife while proving to everyone that Chip isn’t the saint he appears to be. It’s a television junkie’s dream to have this trio of small-screen leads together on the big screen—well it’s really a nightmare. Come to think of it maybe plucking the bulk of the cast from TV series (Scrubs for Braff; Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip for Peet; Arrested Development for Bateman) isn’t the best way to pinch millions from the budget. When Braff does his silly-sensitive Scrubs shtick in the movie it’s as funny as it is on the show but it’s totally not right for his character which is when he switches to serious mode a la his recent Last Kiss. Yeah he’s as confused as we are. Peet is uncharacteristically a non-entity in the movie whereas she is usually more vocal in her movies even if in a supporting role. And Bateman comes close a few times to successfully replicating Michael Bluth’s sardonic wit but then he hangs a sharp turn and delivers an inane unfunny line or physical outburst. The constant flux of bad-to-horrific acting can be as difficult to articulate as it is to comprehend. On the other hand veteran actor Grodin’s performance is very easily explained: It’s not only bad it’s irritating to the ear! And the miscasts go on with Mia Farrow an acting legend in a bit part as Grodin’s wife and near cameos from Donal Logue (Grounded for Life) SNL-ers Amy Poehler and Fred Armisen and Amy Adams (Junebug). Let’s revisit that title for a moment. As if the current misnomer wasn’t enough The Ex was formerly called Fast Track. Coincidentally once the movie was pushed back several times—which makes you think how bad this one must’ve been without whatever 11th-hour edits and reshoots were made—the title was changed perhaps in an attempt to dissuade a review from mentioning the irony in the title. But the Weinstein brothers should’ve known long before the title conundrum that this one was doomed. The script from first-timers Michael Handelman and David Guion must have undergone major overhauls as well because no script as bad as The Ex’s would have ever been greenlit. In fact it was probably originally something akin to a Cable Guy/Meet the Parents/Flirting with Disaster/Farrelly brothers hybrid but director Jesse Peretz’s movie is nowhere near those. The tone is just so unclear that it makes the actors look like they don’t even know their places—and yet it’s so damn transparent. And when the director is kind enough to carve out what is supposed to be a comedic scene it's Zach Braff taking a tumble on his bike or that good old wheelchair humor. Usually when a movie is called a “dramedy” there is drama and comedy; thus The Ex starts a new genre: “The attempted dramedy.”