When Hollywood decides to remake French farce by Francis Veber, the result can be a champagne cocktail (La Cage Aux Folles spawning The Birdcage) or pâté de merde (Les Compères degenerating into Father’s Day). Dinner for Schmucks, adapted from Veber’s Le Dîner De Cons, falls somewhere in the middle. What makes the soufflé rise is the actors. Steve Carell is a comic wonder as the film’s No. 1 schmuck. Carell’s Barry Speck is an IRS auditor who spends his spare time as an amateur taxidermist, stuffing dead mice to star in his dioramas (wait till you see his “Last Supper.”) That makes Barry a prize find for Tim Conrad (Paul Rudd), an L.A. financial analyst ready to rise in the ranks if he can win the monthly dinner game held by his boss, Lance Fender (Bruce Greenwood). Lance challenges his execs to find the biggest idiot and bring the fool to dinner to be mocked. Tim’s girlfriend, Julie (Stephanie Szostak), is rightly horrified. But when Tim runs down and nearly kills Barry with his Porsche, it’s manna from fool heaven.
OK, you can see the setup coming. The schmucks are the wise ones ready to expose the inhuman nastiness in a world of wealth and privilege. The script by David Guion and Michael Handelman is clunky about connecting those dots. But director Jay Roach, the ringmaster behind two hit film trilogies involving Austin Powers and the Fockers (and an Emmy winner for HBO’s political satire Recount), peppers the pot with comic mischief. Roach finds room for a three-ring circus of clowns, including Jemaine Clement (Flight of the Conchords) as a bizarro performance artist, Comedy Central’s Jeff Dunham as a nutso ventriloquist and The Hangover‘s Zach Galifianakis as, well, I’ll let you figure that out. Shocks are part of the fun.
Roach includes the dinner that the French version didn’t. Everything is bigger this time. Jacques Villeret, who played the Carell role, built his dreams out of matchsticks, not mice. But when the silliness gets out of hand, it’s Carell and Rudd, having previously teamed in The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Anchorman, who remember to anchor the laughs in reality.