Dinner for Schmucks

Review by © Jane Freebury

The received wisdom that foreign language Hollywood remakes are a pale imitation of the original is usually true, but not always. An exception to the rule is always refreshing, especially if you had been expecting the worst on account of (a) the received wisdom, and (b) when you’d found Francis Veber’s original The Dinner Game (Le Diner de Cons) cruel rather than funny – though it did good business in the home market, France.

So what is different about this Hollywood remake? The Steve Carell character, Barry the schmuck, the idiot, le con of the original French farce, and the embodiment of ignorance is bliss. Barry simply can’t think badly of anybody, neither the wife who’s left him, the boss who heavies him with mind games or the young exec in the silver Porsche who runs him down, then calculates he can use him to get a leg up the corporate ladder. That’s Tim (Paul Rudd).

The way to the top at Tim’s firm, a private equity business that specialises in distressed assets – or is that poor schmucks? – is participating in dinners for winners, a euphemism for the eponymous dinners for schmucks. You take along some dumb chump as your guest to a high level corporate dinner. The bigger fool they make of themselves, the more entertained your bosses, and the better your chances of rising quickly up the company ranks.

Tim recognises that Barry will be perfect for his purposes. An employee of the US equivalent of the Tax Office who poses no threat whatsoever to anyone’s tax evasion schemes, Barry practices taxidermy in his spare time. While Pignon, le con in The Dinner Game original, made matchstick miniatures of the Eiffel Tower and other great edifices, Barry builds dioramas of stuffed mice representing big moments in art. One of the artist Van Gogh and his paintings, Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, Munch’s The Scream, more often than not accompanied by a lame joke.

It’s pretty unlikely material really, but somehow director Jay Roach (Meet the Parents, and the Austin Powers films), Carell and others – including a hulking Kiwi comic actor called Jemaine Clement as a priapic artist and Lucy Punch who makes quite an impression as Tim’s crazy stalker – manage to pull it off. Roach generally underplays his hand, and Carell’s interpretation of Barry steals the show.

Since I reviewed the original Dinner Game late in the 1990s we’ve seen many more examples of the comedy of humiliation. This remake follows the original storyline more or less, but it manages to turn the tables on the organisers of the nasty dinner game, while the original didn’t and the silly schmuck remained the butt of the cruel joke.

In a capsule: A Hollywood remake more entertaining and nothing like as cruel as the original. Steve Carell’s considerable comic talents get an airing, and good cast and director turn unlikely material into something surprisingly funny.

3 stars

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