If the late 2000s were the highpoint of Judd Apatow-inspired comedies, then 2010’s “Dinner for Schmucks” is the first signal that those nuanced, comedic sensibilities had fallen off a cliff. With a paint-by-numbers premise and farcical characters who fail to be funny, “Dinner for Schmucks” isn’t an ode to the beta-male as much as it is a launch of the beta-comedy that would pervade the 2010s to come.
“Schmucks” isn’t directed by Apatow, but it does feature his mouth-offing muses Steve Carrell and Paul Rudd, two stars whose most famous roles at that point were in “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up.” Their appearances suggest “Dinner for Schmucks” is in the same league as those earlier films: You don’t drop out of the comedy majors for a shot at the minors after all. But “Dinner for Schmucks” would become the forgettable entree in their extensive filmography, a paycheck movie funded by moviegoers bouncing out of the flick before it even finished.
Paul Rudd plays Tim, an uninteresting Los Angeles everyman who already has everything anyone could ever want: A grandiose apartment, a loving, intelligent wife (are you bored yet?), and a slick Porsche that earns Tim admiration and envy with every stop light he runs. He does something in finance, and is ogling a new promotion after a co-worker gets fired. The key to that promotion is by signing a Richard Branson-esque Swiss yuppie, and by finding a hapless idiot to be bullied in a communal dinner hosted by Tim’s finance bros.
It’s been less than 30 minutes, and Tim has already been botched as a character. We can’t reasonably believe he cares about this job so much, since he already is so successful in his personal and professional life. The only sorta need we see in Tim is for him not to feel insecure about his beautiful girlfriend, but even that fails to since she clearly does care about him. Alas, Tim is resigned to be nothing more than a straight man to Barry, the socially-unaware misfit played by Steve Carell.
A professional tax auditor and an amateur mouse taxidermist, Barry’s hyper-enthusiasm and socially unaware mindset makes him the perfect muse for Tim to take on this dinner. He’s a walking pocket-protector, that one lonely bus rider who initiates stifled conversation and follows you home to chat up your family. Tim must survive Barry’s barrage of faux pas and get to this dinner with his career and love life still in one piece.
Throughout Tim and Barry’s exodus into the dark realms of social isolation, we encounter many a familiar funny faces. There’s Jermaine Clement as an artistic Lothario attempting to entice Tim’s wife, and Zack Galifianakis as Barry’s IRS senior. These characters and plotlines are half-hearted, like secondary sketches that were bumped during SNL’s dress rehearsal and never made it to air.
But we trudge forward, trying not to get burnt from the comedic misfire, we finally arrive intact to take our seats at the fabled shmuck dinner. Things go awry and in the mayhem, Tim apologizes to Barry. We’re supposed to empathize with Tim over his guilt, but we feel guilty instead for poking fun at this malignant misfits. It’s like when “I Know Pronounce You Chuck and Larry” spent 95% of its runtime making gay jokes and then lazily asks the audience for politically-correct salvation in the final moments.
This concept could have worked if the entire movie was centered around the dinner. We’d learn a bit about each bumbling oaf, Tim’s character arc would come full-circle over a three-course meal, and there’d be enough mayhem and hubris for deserts afterwards. By extending that invitation into a week-long buildup, with its guests proving to be more uninteresting as each minute passes, “Dinner for Schmucks” ends up overcooking its comedic premise.