Remake of Veber farce a showcase for Carell

DINNER PARODY | Paul Rudd and Steve Carell spiral out of control in laugh-filled French farce remake.

3 out of 5 stars
Steve Carell, Paul Rudd.
Rated PG-13. 105 mins.
Now playing wide release.

With the one-two punch of Despicable Me and now Dinner for Schmucks, Steve Carell will be hard to beat as the summer’s King of Comedy.

Schmucks is based on the 1998 French comedy Le Diner de Cons by Francis Veber, writer of La Cage aux Folles. With typical American excess, it’s half an hour longer than the French version (about 15 minutes too long) and includes the eponymous dinner, which Veber left to the imagination. Still it’s a top screen farce featuring moments of inspired silliness.

A farce by its nature requires lots of expositional set up, so your patience is tested at the beginning, but the payoff is worth it. Tim (Paul Rudd) is a hard-working analyst for Fender (Bruce Greenwood). With a connection to a wealthy Swiss wastrel (David Walliams of Little Britain) and the help of his secretary (Kristen Schaal), Tim may advance from the sixth floor to the seventh: Moving into the company’s inner circle gets him invited to a monthly dinner party where idiots are invited and mocked.

Tim has begun making frequent proposals to his girlfriend Julie (Stephanie Szostak), an art curator promoting the career of pretentious painter Kieran Vollard (Jemaine Clement). Tim promises not to participate in the dinner until he meets socially awkward Barry (Carell), who fits the idiot profile so perfectly it seems like fate.

Tim invites him to the dinner, giving him a license to cling. Barry sets about systematically but inadvertently destroying Tim’s life, hilariously involving his own boss at the IRS (Zach Galifianakis) and a stalker (Lucy Punch) with a near-fatal attraction to Tim.

Because the p.c. police are watching, the dinner guests not only have to have some kind of alternate intellect, but must be extraordinary people with specialized skills or hobbies they engage in obsessively. We’ve already seen Barry’s work in a fascinating opening montage: He dresses up dead mice and poses them in elaborate tableaux.

In classic fashion, it’s always clear where Dinner for Schmucks is headed but not how it’s going to get there. Each of Barry’s blunders is just a bit more outrageous than you think it’s going to be. Carell, skillfully delivering malapropisms like “the fecal position,” can take over the late Ed Wynn’s title of the Perfect Fool. Rudd makes an equally perfect straight man, though the character and situation may be too close for comfort to what he played in I Love You, Man.

The supporting players overact appropriately, with Szostak and Punch likely to raise their profiles significantly. It’s a treat for Flight of the Conchords fans to have Clement and Schaal in the same vehicle, even if they don’t get to interact.

Director Jay Roach almost makes up for those dreadful Austin Powers movies here. A moment when Barry’s backstory is told in three photos is surprisingly subtle and touching, reminiscent of the marriage montage in Up. If you like to laugh, you’d be a schmuck to be late for Dinner.

— Steve Warren

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 30, 2010.