The Aisle Steat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Dinner for Schmucks
Steve Carell shows Paul Rudd his latest "mouse-terpiece."

I've never cared much for farce. The style of comedy is difficult to do well and all too easy to do badly. Dinner for Schmucks gives it the old college try – a brave move in a summer when the crassly simplistic humor of Grown Ups seems to be what sells tickets. Armed with an impressive roster of talented comic actors, plus a director who has helmed some of the biggest comedy hits of the last decade, the movie somehow manages to navigate a tricky minefield. I'm not saying it's a great film, but it made me laugh often, and a couple scenes are downright hilarious.

Paul Rudd stars as Tim Conrad, who dreams not so much of climbing the corporate ladder as of rocketing to the top of it. His boss (Bruce Greenwood) is impressed enough by Tim's performance to invite him to an exclusive dinner party he hosts every year. The hitch is that each participant must bring an unsuspecting guest, and that guest must be as stupid as possible. Whoever brings the weirdest person wins. To the horror of his girlfriend Julie (Stephanie Szostak), Tim actually considers going, fearing that if he doesn't, his boss will never let him ascend within the company. Fate seems to intervene when Tim's car accidentally hits Barry Speck (Steve Carell), a divorced IRS worker who, in his free time, builds dioramas using stuffed mice.

The lonely Barry is thrilled to have a new friend, and in the 24 hours before the dinner, he stays close to Tim's side, causing a whirlwind of trouble the entire time. He breaks things, he lures a stalker, and worst of all, he causes Julie to leave. This only makes Tim more determined to throw Barry to his ravenously crude colleagues. Despite being played up in all the advertising, the dinner itself only takes place in the final half hour, but when it comes, it's pretty outrageous. Zach Galifianakis plays another attendee who thinks he has special powers but knows he has an unpleasant connection to Barry.

Dinner for Schmucks makes no pretense of being realistic. Hardly a single character displays anything even closely resembling actual human behavior. When you go that far out on a limb, the risk is there to be very hit-or-miss. That's true here too, but for me, there were more hits than misses, due to the skill of this extraordinary cast. Steve Carell and Paul Rudd already have proven chemistry, having co-starred in The 40 Year-Old Virgin. Rudd is a master at finding the humor in normalcy, able to bring hilarity to Average Joe characters that you'd never think would exist. The actor has a lot of sharp interplay with Carell, who portrays Barry as a ball of confused nerves and insecurities. Carell has a tough part; he has to make Barry someone who Tim understandably loathes but who we in the audience like. He accomplishes this by giving the character a sympathetic side underneath the blatant oddness.

Galifianakis provides a lot of insanity in his supporting role, again demonstrating an admirable ability to say/do the most preposterous things while wearing a very serious expression. Lucy Punch is also really terrific, playing Tim's stalker with just the right balance of funny and creepy. Jemaine Clement (HBO's “Flight of the Concords”) is the scene-stealer in a picture filled with them, as an egotistical artist who Tim suspects of bedding Julie.

Dinner for Schmucks has a certain rhythm to it. I chuckled pretty regularly, then every so often something hilarious would happen, and I'd be full-on laughing. Not everything in it works – at times, the plot seems to be straining a bit to keep the farce going – but the laughs come consistently enough that I never felt worn out by the madcap tone. Director Jay Roach (Meet the Parents and the Austin Powers movies) knows when to let loose and when to pull back for a more sincere moment. Not that there's an abundance of sincerity or anything, but there is enough to provide a necessary bit of grounding.

More than anything, the film is enjoyable for giving a handful of gifted comic performers the chance to go for broke as they are placed in one crazy situation after another. Each of them creates a delightfully eccentric character, then we watch them all bounce off one another like pinballs. Regardless of whether the story is in a sweet spot or a moment that is too broad, the actors constantly amuse. Skill elevates material, so the implausible concept of Dinner for Schmucks is made better by the great cast. Going in, you have to be ready for an anything-goes tone because nothing about the film is subtle. But hey, sometimes subtlety is overrated. Or least it feels that way when I'm laughing as much as I did at Schmucks.

( out of four)

Dinner for Schmucks is rated PG-13 for sequences of crude and sexual content, some partial nudity and language. The running time is 1 hour and 50 minutes.