Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (May 17, 2020)
With 2010’s Dinner for Schmucks, we get a high-concept comedy focused on the belittlement of unusual individuals. Tim Conrad (Paul Rudd) works at a financial firm with a slew of other highly-competitive colleagues.
A man of great ambition, Tim lives beyond his means, all with the expectation that he’ll get a promotion that will bring with it significant monetary reward. Everything Tim does works toward this step up at his job.
Tim’s boss Lance Fender (Bruce Greenwood) hosts a monthly “Dinner for Idiots”, at which each invitee needs to bring a quirky guest. Fender and others then mock these folks behind their backs.
Tim initially resists an invitation to this party, but when he feels he might benefit from it at work, he decides to go. He brings IRS employee Barry Speck (Steve Carell), but he grows to question this choice when he starts to like his “idiot”.
Back in 2010, I went to see Dinner theatrically and expected a fun time. With Austin Powers’ Jay Roach behind the camera and Rudd and Carell in front of it, this seemed like a can’t miss proposition.
Alas, it did, as Dinner whiffed in a big way. 10 years later, I thought perhaps I misjudged, so I gave it another shot.
Strike two! Despite all the potential to excel, Dinner becomes a largely laugh-free endurance test.
At 114 minutes, Dinner goes long for a comedy. A better-constructed movie could handle that running time, but because this one lacks good basic assembly, it stretches itself too thin.
Though it sets up the concept early, Dinner doesn’t reach the titular event until way into the proceedings. If it used the prior time wisely, that would seem like less of an issue, but man, does the movie dawdle.
Granted, comedies don’t need taut plots like other genres, so a loosely built film could do just fine if it brought the laughs. However, we find surprisingly few funny moments, partly due to one fatal flaw: Barry.
For Dinner to succeed, we need to like Barry and care about his journey. Unfortunately, the film paints Barry as such an annoying moron that we openly dislike him.
Carell doesn’t make Barry a lovable oddball. Instead, he creates a shrill, persistently irritating character who annoys much more than he entertains.
Since Barry becomes the focal point of the film’s comedic conflicts, these scenes fall flat. Barry turns into such a grating personality that most potential laughs evaporate.
It also seems wholly illogical that – spoiler alert! – Barry would win the “Idiot Competition”. Sure, he shows odd social skills and a quirky hobby, but the dinner includes a ventriloquist married to his puppet and a woman who channels dead animals – there’s no way the simple dopiness of Barry would top that crew.
Not that Dinner comes devoid of amusement, as the sheer talent of the cast keeps us with it for a while. Make no mistake: we get a stunning roster of talent here.
In addition to Carell, Rudd and Greenwood, Dinner brings Zach Galifianakis, Chris O’Dowd, Lucy Punch, Jemaine Clement, Kristen Schaal, Larry Willmore, Ron Livingston, PJ Byrne, and honest to God Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer!
By any definition, that accounts for a tremendous cast, so inevitably, some humor results. However, the hilarity seems much less prevalent than one would expect from such a talented group.
Again, the movie’s length acts as a problem, especially because it seems unclear that anyone bothered to edit it. Various scenes go on and on, and they run out of steam well before they conclude.
The same goes for Dinner as a whole. The movie boasts a ton of comedic potential that it squanders badly.
Footnote: a tag scene pops up at the conclusion of the end credits.