Movie review: ‘Dinner for Schmucks’

What do you get when you combine a swell French comedy concept, a top American comedy director and two of the best comedy actors around? Against all reason and expectation, the result is a distinctly unfunny film.

That would be “Dinner for Schmucks,” starring Steve Carell and Paul Rudd and directed by Jay Roach. The film’s noticeable lack of laughs is as baffling as its choice of a once-taboo Yiddish word for its title.

Certainly Carell and Rudd, who’ve worked together in “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy,” are actors who know their way around humor. As does director Roach, who has the “Austin Powers” films as well as the beautifully done “Meet the Parents” on his résumé.

And there is certainly nothing wrong with the concept for the film, especially as formerly executed by the excellent French writer-director Francis Veber, who won a Cesar (as did two of his actors) for his 1998 “Le Dîner de Cons,” translated as “The Dinner Game.”

The only French film to rival “Titanic” at the Gallic box office, “The Dinner Game” starts with the concept of supper parties in which heartless co-conspirators are charged with bringing complete fools to the table so that everyone else can laugh at them behind their backs. It’s a classic French verbal farce, in which, inch by imperceptible inch, things get beautifully and hysterically out of control.

Officially only “inspired by” the French film, which started life as stage play, “Schmucks” understandably expands on the original, and in some ways exceeds it. While the French idiot built a scale-model Eiffel Tower completely out of matchsticks, this film’s Barry Speck (Carell) uses tiny dead mice dressed as humans to create elaborate dioramas from art and history.

As designed by Joel Venti and actually created by Charles, Edward and Stephen Chiodo, these “mouseterpieces” have an ability to make you smile that is largely absent from the rest of the movie. Any film (“Ratatouille” excepted) in which the mice are more appealing than the human protagonists is in more than a bit of trouble.

That trouble is not in evidence at first, as the script by the team of David Guion & Michael Handelman sets the scene of the crime by introducing us to ambitious young Tim Conrad (Rudd). Eager for promotion at the private equity firm of Fender Financial, he catches the eye of boss Lance Fender ( Bruce Greenwood), who invites him to a weekend soirée where, not to put too fine a point on it, “you invite idiots to dinner to make fun of them.”

Unhappy at this notion is Tim’s beautiful gallery-owning girlfriend Julie (Stephanie Szostak), who has dilemmas of her own dealing with her star artist, the hairy and very primal Kieran Vollard ( Jemaine Clement of HBO’s “The Flight of the Conchords”).

Aside from those mice, the best thing about “Schmucks” is the skill and care with which Roach and his casting team have peopled the film’s supporting parts. Aside from Greenwood, Szostak and Clement, those smartly cast folks include Kristen Schaal as Tim’s secretary, David Walliams as a Swiss billionaire and Zach Galifianakis and Christopher O’Dowd as fellow dinner guests.

But just when “Dinner for Schmucks” should be kicking into gear, just when it should start making you really laugh because Carell enters the picture, that’s the point at which the whole enterprise starts to fall apart.

Carell is, of course, one of the funniest people working today, but his Barry Speck character seems misconceived. Yes, as a man with no insight, no self-awareness, no irony and no sense of humor, Barry is no bright light, but the problem is that instead of being comedic he comes off as a genuinely crazed and dangerous individual.

And once Tim involves Barry in his life by inviting him to the idiots’ dinner, things get worse in more ways than one. The situations that Barry precipitates — alienating Julie, encouraging a stalker, getting Tim in trouble with the IRS and jeopardizing his job — are too hostile and humiliating to be funny. A pest on a colossal scale, “a tornado of destruction” in Tim’s words, Barry is the least amusing nominally comic character in memory.

Making things worse is “Dinner for Schmucks’ ” determination to add both sentimentality and raunchy dialogue to the mix. Writing about the possibility of a “Dinner Game” remake more than 10 years ago, I worried that “it’s doubtful that anyone anywhere can do this story better justice than is done right here.” I didn’t know how right I was.