"Dinner for Schmucks" is as light as a fistful of feathers — as a comedy in the age of Apatow, it's barely there. But the sharp cast is smart enough not to weigh down the airy tale with heavy shtick (which might have been a temptation), and director Jay Roach lays out the story with straightforward simplicity. The movie becomes funnier than you might expect at the beginning; as summer comedies go, it's a small surprise.
Paul Rudd plays Tim, an upwardly mobile finance hotshot at an L.A. investment firm. After he reels in a wealthy new client, an enormously snooty Swiss moneybags named Mueller (David Walliams, of "Little Britain"), Tim's boss (Bruce Greenwood) tantalizes him with the prospect of a big promotion — but on one condition: Tim will have to attend an annual company dinner to which each top executive is expected to bring an idiot — the most pathetic specimen of humanity he can find. The exec with the biggest idiot wins.
Tim's girlfriend, a gallery owner named Julie (Stephanie Szostak), is so appalled by this idea that he promises her he won't take part. For one thing, he's starting to worry that Julie might fall into the clutches of her hottest new artist, the egomaniacal Kieran (Jemaine Clement), whose outsize paintings all feature him in dementedly heroic poses. Finally, though, Tim is overcome by ambition and decides to attend the dinner. Now he just has to find an idiot.
Fortuitously, while driving down the street in his pricey sports car, Tim accidentally runs into Barry (Steve Carell), who turns out to be a perfect goofus. ("I've been hit by a Datsun before," he says excitedly, "but never a Porsche.") Barry is an IRS drone by day, but his real passion is creative taxidermy: collecting dead mice, stuffing them, outfitting them with handmade clothing and then arranging them in elaborate tableaux. (One of these, meticulously housed in a display case, is an all-rodent restaging of the Last Supper.)
Here, unfortunately, the movie, which is a remake of a 1998 French film, hits an unpleasant bump. Barry is supposed to be a complete moron (Carell seems to have derived this toothy nutcake from the Jerry Lewis canon, minus Lewis' abrasive whininess), but his "mouster-pieces," as he calls them, really are inspired. When Tim fails to realize this at first, and pushes ahead with his dinner plan, we begin to question his character in an unsmiling way. He'll eventually have a change of heart — that's the preordained point of the story — but a sour taste lingers.
The movie is naturally pointed like an arrow toward the concluding idiot dinner. Along the way to it, though, we meet some fine daffy characters, among them Barry's IRS boss, Therman (Zach Galifianakis), who has a private passion of his own for mind control (he's written a book called "Your Mind Is My Puppet"); and a lunatic party girl named Darla (Lucy Punch), who has been stalking Tim ever since he drunkenly went to bed with her three years earlier. (She comes on to men tongue-first.)
Additional oddballs turn up at the idiot dinner itself, of course: a blind fencing enthusiast, a lonely ventriloquist with his wooden-headed "wife," and a dead-pet psychic who disrupts the feast when she starts receiving messages from the main course (broiled lobster). It's no surprise that the dinner collapses into a slapstick fiasco (which goes on a little too long), or that in the end the sleazy guys all get their comeuppance and the idiots emerge as misunderstood sweethearts whose obsessions make sense in the context of their eccentric lives. As Barry puts it, more or less quoting John Lennon: "You may say I'm a dreamer. But I'm not."
Don't miss Kurt Loder's review of "Charlie St. Cloud," also new in theaters this week.
("Dinner for Schmucks" is a Paramount Pictures presentation. Paramount and MTV are both subsidiaries of Viacom.)
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