Movie: Dinner for Schmucks ***
(15A, general release)
Director of such nuanced comedies as the Austin Powers movies and Meet the Parents, Jay Roach would not perhaps be your number-one choice when it came to adapting a carefully constructed French farce for an American audience.
Nevertheless, it's he who's at the helm of this big budget remake of the 1998 Francis Veber comedy Le Diner de Cons. And Roach in fairness actually does a pretty good job of it, helped by two perfectly counter-balanced performances from Paul Rudd and Steve Carell.
Rudd, as ever the straight man, is Tim Conrad, a mid-level executive at a high-end Los Angeles financial investment brokerage who is determined to get ahead in order to impress his French girlfriend, Julie (Stephanie Szostak), whom he wishes to marry.
After attracting the attention of his odious boss Lance Fender (Bruce Greenwood) by piping up with at a meeting, Tim is invited to Fender's exclusive monthly 'dinner for idiots', to which each ambitious executive is required to bring the biggest fool he can find so that everyone else can laugh at him. Despite his misgivings, Tim agrees -- and a perfect specimen lands right in his lap.
As he's driving home, he nearly runs his car over Barry Speck (Carell), a bespectacled and woefully gullible dimwit whose principal occupation is the composition of elaborate historical tableaux peopled by dead, stuffed mice. Tim thinks Barry is just the idiot to impress his boss, but as it turns out Speck is a kind of one-man vortex of chaos who will nearly destroy Tim's entire life before he's finished. Barry means to be a help, but soon he's ruined Tim's relationship, jeopardised his job and let a crazy stalker into his life, but he'll also teach him a very valuable lesson.
Dinner for Schmucks heads for high farce and slapstick pretty early on and stays there. It draws its characters pretty sketchily, and most of the supporting actors are encouraged into broad caricatures. It stands or fails on the chemistry between Rudd and Carell, and the two skilled comic performers gel together perfectly here.
Rudd plays a kind of long-suffering Job, but never becomes overly histrionic, because that would jar with the essential sweetness of Carell's sad but well-meaning clown. His Barry Speck is a delightful comic creation, thick enough to be very funny, but with an underlying vulnerability that makes you feel slightly guilty when you laugh.