What a disheartening spectacle we have in “Dinner for Schmucks,” the latest comedy to squander Steve Carell’s impeccable timing and his gift for frantic, Clouseau-like cluelessness.
For better and more often worse, we see in Barry, his latest on-screen buffoon, a character reminiscent of Michael Scott, the deluded middle manager he plays on “The Office.”
Hopelessly oblivious in every aspect of his modest existence, Barry is a tragic figure, partly because of the pain behind his manic grin, and partly because he’s so easy to despise.
You want to empathize with this lonely man, left with his fantasies and the stuffed mice he poses so lovingly in his homemade dioramas.
Yet to know Barry is to loathe him. He is a caricature so far-fetched, so utterly insufferable, that one might reasonably question whether he’s human at all.
Loosely inspired by the acid French comedy “Le Diner de Cons,” “Schmucks” wants us to feel conflicted about accepting its many invitations to laugh at Barry, shell of a man that he is.
The problem: Barry just isn’t funny. Annoying? You bet. But never is he a person so much as a gag reel.
Not everyone will agree. At the screening I attended, roughly half the crowd roared at every pratfall and sitcom-style misunderstanding. The other half sat in stony silence, interrupted only by a few disgruntled customers hissing their disapproval as they made an early exit.
They didn’t miss much. To its detriment, Jay Roach’s remake lacks the savagery of Francis Veber’s 1999 original. In both, a group of wealthy elitists throw a dinner party, competing with each other to find the biggest idiot for the evening’s entertainment.
Tim, a rising executive played by the affable Paul Rudd, reluctantly invites Barry to the party, eager to impress his boss (Bruce Greenwood) and reasoning, astutely, that he’s found a winner.
But Tim is likable enough that his inevitable comeuppance seems more a concession to the mechanics of a well-worn plot than a persuasive moral lesson. If anyone deserves the indignities heaped on him, it’s Barry.
Rudd, a gifted comedian who previously co-starred with Carell in the Judd Apatow-produced “Anchorman” and “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” plays straight man here, giving Carell’s idiot savant just enough rope to keep the movie tied inextricably to his increasingly desperate antics.
The fault isn’t Carell’s, though. It lies with a script, by David Guion and Michael Handelman, that hypocritically decries its characters’ boorishness while unself-consciously parading its own — a comedy of bad manners that insults nothing except our intelligence.
Starring Steve Carell, Paul Rudd, Zach Galifianakis, Jemaine Clement, Lucy Punch
Written by David Guion, Michael Handelman
Directed by Jay Roach
Running time 1 hour 54 minutes