Wednesday, August 4, 2010
Dinner for Schmucks
Dinner for Schmucks is one of the very few funny comedies that I can think of that knows how to use caricature to its advantage. Come to think of it, caricature is the only possible way this film could work. From any other angle the material would be tasteless and offensive. As a portrait of caricatures running lose amongst their own, it’s very funny, kind of sweet and even maybe a touch endearing as well. It’s still, as far as the dinner itself is concerned, a little in bad taste, but it remains a tasty meal. The set-up for the film is borrowed from the 1998 French comedy The Dinner Game in which a sixth floor analyst, knowing there is a vacancy in the company, comes up with a brilliant idea to woo a hundred million dollar client their way. However the boss (Bruce Greenwood) wants to get to know Tim (Paul Rudd, playing the straight man) a little better before giving him the new office and invites him to the monthly company dinner. The object of the dinner is for each employee to go out into the world and find someone of very “special” talents which, without the quotations, translates into stupid. Tim, by strange coincidence runs into Barry (Steve Carell) who is, among other things, a very “special” kind of guy. Barry is an IRS man who, in his spare time, combs the streets looking for dead mice that he can stuff and dress up and put into scenes that he can photograph and make models out of. When Tim meets him his latest Mousterpiece involves recreating The Last Supper down to the very last beard. Not impressed is Tim’s girlfriend Julie (Stephanie Szostak) who owns an art gallery and is working with the devilishly pretentious artist Kieran (Flight of the Concord’s Jemaine Clement) who explains to Tim his philosophies on the beauty of living with goats and would be considered a very "special" kind of guy where he not, ya know, famous. Also amongst the collection of colour is Barry’s boss Therman (Zack Galifianakis) who believes that he can control people’s minds, reminding of what Socrates said about how orators can convince a group of people more about medicine than a doctor, assuming all of those people knew nothing of medicine to begin with. If the plot sounds crass, well, in a way it is. But it works because Clement, Galifianakis and especially Carell play the characters not only high, but straight as well. It’s obvious that all of these men are exaggerations of comic types so, when it comes time to sit back, during the dinner and watch them be mocked, it is, not quite okay, but acceptable in a funny kind of way. However, as many comedies find out, to go over-the-top is not something many do with grace. Caricature is, after all, mostly poor man’s satire, but here it’s played completely straight. The worst comedies are the ones that try desperately to be funny. They nudge the audience along with them. Carell is maybe one of the best men there is at playing exceptionally dumb men who never manage to look the part. Because Carell actually plays Barry as a character you kind of grow to like the poor bum. Sure he’s about as swift as a rock and turns everything he involves himself with into complete devastation but he means well and generally does care, which leads to some tender moments that a lesser comedy probably wouldn’t be bothered with. Barry, in his own special way, has the kind of naive innocence that made Chaplin’s the Tramp one of the cinema’s most beloved characters. That’s the secret to great comedy and why Dinner for Schmucks works. Were it to ever let on to the audience that it were trying to be funny it would be crass and dumb. Instead it shoots straight and builds characters that, despite it all, you grow to like and root for on the way to the inevitable conclusion where Tim realizes that, if this is the cost of doing business, maybe he’s in the wrong one. Anyone can act like an idiot and pass it off as comedy. Real comedy is about people who, despite everything else, just so happen to be a few cards short of a whole deck.