Francis Veber’s 1998 French black comedy The Dinner Game is relentlessly mean-spirited, heaping one karmic payback after another on a callous, philandering businessman who hopes to exploit a well-meaning dolt for his own personal gain. Jay Roach’s American adaptation, Dinner For Schmucks, softens things considerably, siccing an earnest but destructive idiot (Steve Carell) upon a well-meaning go-getter (Paul Rudd) whose only crime is making a couple of bad judgment calls. Thanks to Rudd and Carell’s dependable likeability and a tacked-on warm-and-fuzzy ending, Dinner For Schmucks is leagues ahead of its forebear in terms of mass appeal, but its laughs are more silly than scathing.
The unraveling of Rudd’s charmed life begins when, in order to land a big promotion, he agrees to attend a dinner party where his smarmy boss (Bruce Greenwood) and his sycophants compete over who can bring along the most hilariously idiotic plus-one. After his perfect-in-every-way girlfriend (Stephanie Szostak) voices her displeasure at the cruel game, Rudd agrees to back out, but when he literally runs into Carell and discovers his hobby of creating intricate dioramas featuring taxidermied mice, he can’t help but renege on his promise. Within hours, Carell’s aggressive stupidity wreaks havoc on Rudd’s relationship, home, and body, with every attempt to repair the damage exacerbating it further.
Unlike the original, in which the titular party never happens, Schmucks culminates in an absurd dinner highlighted by the appearance of Zach Galifianakis as Carell’s delusional foe. The dinner’s flailing, noisy antics are a good representation of the film’s comedic M.O.: over-the-top silliness that, on more than one occasion, devolves into characters just making funny noises and pulling faces. Carell is more adept than most at making awkward man-child antics endearing, but it often becomes exhausting, particularly when combined with Lucy Punch’s screeching, psychotic performance as Rudd’s violence-prone stalker. Jemaine Clement provides some relief as a self-absorbed photographer and Rudd’s romantic competition; the character is more than a little reminiscent of Russell Brand’s character in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, but Clement’s deadpan obliviousness is a nice counterpoint to Carell’s over-the-top stupidity. Gags are deployed at such a rapid pace and high volume that it’s easy to get caught up in the film’s manic energy, though with a couple of exceptions—such as the repeated sight gag of Carell’s mice dioramas—none of the jokes stick after their initial impact. Instead, they dissolve into a vague notion of humor without any sharp edges.