Paul Rudd plays the straight man, while Steve Carell charitably tackles the lonely loser who stumbles into his humiliation scheme, in “Dinner for Schmucks,” an uproarious odd-couple remake of Francis Veber’s hit French farce “The Dinner Game” (once second only to “Titanic” at the Gallic B.O.). American adaptations of Veber’s works have been all over the map, from “The Birdcage” to “Father’s Day” (when DreamWorks optioned “Dinner,” it too was intended to star Robin Williams). Here, helmer Jay Roach takes the wickedly un-PC premise and renders it positively benign, emerging with a nutty crowd-pleaser in the process.
The setup is simple: Find a schmuck, bring him to dinner. The guy with the biggest idiot wins. (Also, no mimes. Too obvious.) The film’s goal, established over the course of one disastrous evening, is to demonstrate that the idiot isn’t necessarily the guy you expected going in. Except Carell’s Barry really is an idiot — a bumbling yet blissfully unaware imbecile in the grand tradition of such Steve Martin characters as Navin R. Johnson (“The Jerk”), Ruprecht (“Dirty Rotten Scoundrels”) and Clouseau (“The Pink Panther”) — which makes the silliness that ensues all the more entertaining.
The poor sod is a buck-toothed, badly toupeed taxman who wears his windbreaker even when indoors, smells like a mix of aftershave and formaldehyde (or so we’re told) and spends his free time making detailed dioramas with dead mice. (These elaborate creations very nearly steal the show, designed by Joel Venti and executed by the Chiodo brothers, the cult effects trio who crafted the puppets for “Team America: World Police.”)
Barry’s appeal is a question of taste, really: Either such a goofy caricature never grows old, or he proves unbearable from the moment he first appears onscreen. (In the case of the pic’s trial-by-fire Montreal premiere before a room of Veber-philes, he had the crowd in stitches.)
The real wild card is Tim (Rudd). In the original version, the character’s cruelty rubbed American auds wrong, but here, screenwriters David Guion and Michael Handelman (who together scripted “The Ex”) make him a reluctant participant in boss Fender’s (Bruce Greenwood) tacky dinner plans. As it happens, Rudd’s just the sort of sad-sack star who can have you rooting for such an otherwise unconscionable scheme. (It’s one thing for Sacha Baron Cohen to turn up to for dinner and humiliate his hosts, as the “Schmucks” exec producer did in “Borat,” but another for well-heeled Americans to make fun of unsuspecting morons. Such a thing simply isn’t done.)
The social tension underlying the whole equation suggests an opportunity for some truly provocative comedy (in the vein of Lars von Trier’s “The Idiots,” perhaps), but “Schmucks” plays it safe, sticking with screwball, and that’s just as well. Other Veber ideas have translated rather naturally in past American remakes (consider “Pure Luck,” “Three Fugitives” and “The Man With One Red Shoe”), but “The Dinner Game” features a number of culturally specific Frenchisms, including fear of tax audits and the ultimate faux pas of allowing one’s wife to meet one’s mistress. Thus, Roach and the writers take plenty of liberties in the adaptation, particularly in expanding the scope of the film (“Game,” adapted from Veber’s own play, seldom left the main apartment), but they still manage to hit an impressive number of the original’s key points along the way. The most notable addition is the mean-spirited dinner itself, which provides the outrageous finale the original lacked.
The fact that Barry can keep up with the larger-than-life characters around him is a testament to Carell’s wide-eyed appeal. The movie is a veritable who’s-who of comedic talent, boasting formidable cameos from Zach Galifianakis (as the boss who stole Barry’s wife), “Little Britain’s” David Walliams (as an eccentric Swiss millionaire whose account could save Tim’s job), Kristen Schaal (who plays Tim’s secretary like an extension of his id), Lucy Punch (a psychotic old flame from Tim’s past) and Jemaine Clement (as a hirsute Damien Hirst-style art fraud).
There’s no shortage of schmucks to go around, in other words. If any part of the equation feels anemic, it’s the relationship between Tim and his would-be fiancee, Julie (Stephanie Szostak). Barry arrives mid-spat and inadvertently drives them apart, but the truth of the matter is, the story is so focused on him and Tim that there’s not much room left to worry about romance.
Roach (“Meet the Parents,” “Meet the Fockers,” the “Austin Powers” movies) handles the rest quite ably, keeping things pitched at such a preposterous level, it’s hard to imagine anyone being genuinely offended — no small feat, given the gross-out nature of most contemporary comedies. Bright lensing and Theodore Shapiro’s peppy score help strike an appropriately aloof tone.