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REVIEW: Saggy main course almost dooms “Dinner for Schmucks”

By Sean O’Connell
Hollywoodnews.com: Dinner for Schmucks (**1/2 out of 4 stars)

Jay Roach’s “Dinner for Schmucks” starts strong. It even ends strong. It’s that saggy, aimless middle section that might leave an unsatisfied taste in your mouth.

The cringe comedy tears out of the gate riding a stream of consistent, uproarious laughs as it establishes its premise, which Roach lifted from Francis Veber’s French comedy “Le Diner de Cons,” which he admires. Paul Rudd plays Tim, a ladder-climbing financial analyst with a gorgeous girlfriend (Stephanie Szostak) and realistic dreams of graduating from his company’s sixth floor (where the minions grumble) to the seventh (where the elite rub elbows).

To get there, Tim must participate in his boss’s cruel game: Find a fool and bring him or her to dinner so the supposedly superior can chuckle at their misfortunes. Initially Tim balks, believing the practice to be, as he says, “messed up.” But the game changes once he runs, literally, into Barry (Steve Carell), a clueless dweeb with a passion for taxidermy — resulting in the film’s funniest running joke — but a lack of social aptitude or a verbal filter.

Carell’s presence usually enhances the comedic potential in a situation. Not so with “Schmucks.” The actor’s approach to Barry is so bizarre, so off-the-rails, it sufficiently separates Tim’s predicament from the tiny corner of reality it once occupied.

There is a dichotomy in “Schmucks” that bears exploring. Tim believes Barry is his ticket to a better life. Of course, the longer Tim lingers in Barry’s presence, the more destruction — both personal and physical — this senseless stranger creates.

And yet, as Barry throws out Tim’s back, scares off his girlfriend, invites a lingering stalker (Lucy Punch) into the mix, and tosses him to the IRS for an unfortunate audit, we find ourselves wondering if anyone — even someone who is supposed to be an idiot — would behave this way. Roach sets up a scene where Punch chases Carell around Rudd’s apartment. She’s obsessed with Tim, and wants to make him jealous by pretending to sexually spank Barry. Before long, she is throwing wine bottles at Barry’s head, shattering glass shelves and picture frames. Carell disrupts her amorous charge by playing dead, and Punch simply walks out. The scene works up a good deal of energy before going nowhere.

A number of scenes in “Schmucks” follow the same template, unfortunately. The promised dinner, when it finally arrives, is a feast of inspired lunacy. Carell stands up for Rudd, prompting Rudd to return the favor. Zach Galifianakis momentarily steals the spotlight from Carell as a mind-reading dinner guest. Both defer to Christopher O’Dowd, who burns the house down, literally, as a blind swordsman. It’s a satisfying end, but I wish we could have skipped a few courses to get to it sooner.

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