Thursday, July 29, 2010

Chuckles minus a full course of laughs

Steve Carell proves endlessly perplexing to Paul Rudd.

For a country that routinely mocks all things French, it's ironic that the U.S. can't seem to get its fill of recycled French comedies. Dinner for Schmucks, which stars Steve Carell and Paul Rudd, supplies us with another instance in which Hollywood has sought inspiration from the country of liberty, equality and fraternity. This Americanized remake of Francis Veber's 1998's Dinner Game -- or Le Diner de Cons, if you must -- has its share of laughs, although it doesn't always serve them up by the forkful.

One way to judge a movie such as Dinner for Schmucks is by assessing how well it turns a crisp - though overrated -- French farce into an American comedy. How well does Dinner For Schmucks mix imagination, humor and slapstick before arriving at its inevitably sentimental conclusion?

As directed by Jay Roach (Meet the Parents and the Austin Powers movies), Dinner For Schmucks works well enough to deem the enterprise a modest success.

Rudd plays an aspiring executive who can land a much-desired promotion only by indulging his boss' wishes. The boss (Bruce Greenwood) hosts a monthly dinner to which his closest associates must bring a "schmuck," a hopelessly dorky and inept person whom the assembled execs can ridicule.

Carell plays the schmuck who holds the key to Rudd's success. Carell's Barry is an IRS worker and amateur taxidermist who, among other things, reconstructs great scenes from art using stuffed dead mice. One of his masterpieces: A precise replica of Da Vinci's The Last Supper.

The script contrives to have Barry meet Rudd's Tim in a way that sets up a dynamic of guilt. Tim runs Barry over with his car. Poor Barry. He's both hopeless and hapless, but a total lack of self-awareness makes him a good foil for Tim. Barry has no idea what an idiot he is.

The movie adds a variety of minor characters. Zach Galifianakis plays Barry's boss at the IRS, an eerily intense fellow who believes he can control the minds of others. Jermaine Clement has a truly funny turn as a self-involved artist and unashamed sex machine. Stephanie Szostak signs on as Tim's fiancee and conscience. Lucy Punch plays a libidinous woman who dated Tim once, but won't let go.

Carell's comic chops already have been established: He does as well as he can with a character who tends to be as annoying as he is funny. Rudd has the more difficult job of playing straight man; he handles it with reasonable aplomb.

The big dinner scene boasts bits that may be not be quite as funny in the execution as they were in the planning, but the characters we meet at this bizarre repast qualify as abundantly strange. Witness the ventriloquist who introduces his dummy (a blonde doll with exposed cleavage) as his wife.

I could have done without much of the slapstick, but I suppose that's a matter of taste. Considering that Dinner for Schmucks is a remake, I arrived at a preview screening with low expectations. I was pleased to find a few laughs and some strangely imaginative bits, and I suppose it takes a certain amount of admirable gall to include dead mice jokes in a comedy that's aiming at big-time summer success.

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