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'Dinner for Schmucks' not totally appetizing

By Tom Charity, Special to CNN
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • "Dinner for Schmucks" teams actors Steve Carell and Paul Rudd
  • Reviewer says the original French film on which it is based "was meaner and funnier"
  • "Schmucks" also includes sever other comedic actors including "Flight of the Conchords" star Jermaine Clement

(CNN) -- Groucho Marx famously declined to join any club that would accept him as a member, a shining example that would have scuppered this supper club farce long before Steve Carell and Paul Rudd signed on. Which would have been a mixed blessing: "Schmucks" ain't pretty, but you'll probably laugh anyway.

A remake of Francis Veber's 1998 hit "Le Diner de cons," this rough translation keeps the bad taste premise but does its best to sweeten the pill. In other words, it wants to have its cake and it eat it too.

Rudd is Tim, a financial analyst on the verge of carving out a well-deserved promotion when his boss invites him to dinner. But this isn't a simple wine-and-dine, get-to-know-you soirée ... Tim will be competing with his colleagues to bring along the most extraordinary guest. And by "extraordinary," what they really mean is "idiotic."

Enter Barry (Carell), risking life and limb to save a dead mouse from being crushed under the wheels of Tim's Porsche.

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It doesn't take Tim long to size Barry up: he's prime schmuck material, a social inadequate who works for the IRS, misquotes John Lennon ("You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not"), a guy who would get hold of the wrong end of the stick even if it was rooted six feet in cement. Best of all, he's a trained taxidermist who fashions kitschy autobiographical, religious and historical dioramas using mortified rodents: his "mousterpieces."

Tim's girlfriend Julie (Stephanie Szostak) is appalled. So are we. Making fun of misfits is just plain wrong, the kind of behavior our schools are working diligently to stamp out.

The French original, which was meaner and funnier, made no bones about implicating its smugly superior businessman in the cruelty of the prank. The American version can't bring itself to be so ruthless: Rudd's guilty misgivings kick in early and often (he's no Walter Matthau, not even a Bill Murray). "There is the me you know and love," he explains to Julie. "Then there is the other me you don't know and would not like. I don't like him either, but we need him to pay for this apartment ..."

That's an elegant and witty rationale that plays to Rudd's comedic strengths -- cynicism and moral compromise rather than outright amorality -- but it may also be a tactical error. Wouldn't we laugh harder at the disasters Barry inadvertently brings down on Tim if he really deserved them?

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Directed by Jay Roach in a manner that suggests he has no pressing engagements elsewhere, "Dinner for Schmucks" finds ample room at the table for numerous out-there comic turns from "Flight of the Conchords" star Jemaine Clement as a narcissistic artist, Zach Galifianakis as a tax inspector proud of his mind-control powers, and David Walliams as an aristocratic Swiss billionaire.

Lucy Punch is a scream as the angriest stalker since Glenn Close in "Fatal Attraction," and Kristen Schaal is terrific in a small part as Tim's ambitious secretary. And I haven't even mentioned the blind Olympic fencer (Chris O'Dowd), the ventriloquist with a trampy doll, or the pet spiritualist ...

It's a comedy smorgasbord! But you might feel a bit queasy afterwards. Some of this material would have looked better on the DVD supplements menu. Roach's inclusivity is meant to distract us from the problem that the central dynamic between Carell and Rudd doesn't quite click.

They have some funny scenes together, but Carell's toothy eager-beaver nincompoop feels more like a stunt than a full-fledged human being, and it's disappointing that Roach shies away from anything genuinely awkward and uncomfortable in favor of broad caricature and tepid sentimentality.