This long-gestating Hollywood remake of Francis Veber’s 1998 French farce “The Dinner Game” defangs the acerbic original, turning what was a rather nasty satire of social gamesmanship into a genial mismatched-buddy comedy. But though one might miss the astringency of its source, “Dinner for Schmucks” proves one of the better examples of such transatlantic translation. (Of course, most English versions of French comedies have been abysmal.)
The premise stays the same: a group of well-to-do businessmen amuse themselves by hosting elaborate dinners to which each of them brings some social misfit so that they can laugh at their guests’ foolishness. In Veber’s version, the participant the story focused on was as mean-spirited as all the other powerful gamesters, and got his comeuppance when he threw out his back before the event and his “guest” for the evening—a dreary guy who makes elaborate models out of matchsticks—insists on staying and helping the injured man. Of course he instead ruins his host’s life through his bungling, and the anticipated dinner never happens.
In the rewrite by David Guion and Michael Handelman, the protagonist isn’t one of the arrogant snobs who’ve long enjoyed the dinners, but newcomer Tim (Paul Rudd), a good-natured, low-level employee at a financial firm angling for a promotion to the executive floor. His success in arranging a meeting with a potentially lucrative client, a Swiss mogul named Mueller (David Walliams), gets him a shot, but he’ll have to prove himself to his serpentine boss Fender (Bruce Greenwood) by attending the dinner for schmucks and bringing an appropriate guest.
Tim’s conflicted over the business, especially since his girlfriend Julie (Stephanie Szostak), an art gallery owner whom he’s desperate to wed, is appalled by the whole business. But when he literally runs into Barry (Steve Carell), a wide-eyed buffoon (and IRS employee, as it turns out) whose hobby is constructing incredibly complex dioramas using dressed-up dead mice as the figurines, he can’t help himself.
The script follows the original in having Tim throw out his back and Barry messing things up for his new “friend” when he tries to help. But there are significant changes. In the original, the doofus confused the businessman’s wife with his mistress, wrecking his marriage, and afterwards brought a tax inspector to the apartment, forcing his host to try to hide his unreported riches. Here, Barry unwittingly invites over Darla (Lucy Punch), a skank who’s been stalking Tim for years, sending Julie off in a huff. A great deal of time is also devoted to Kieran (Jemaine Clement), the oddball painter with whom Julie’s working (and who Barry immediately suspects is her lover), and to Therman (Zach Galifianakis), Barry’a weird boss at IRS Central, who’s stolen Barry’s wife and who, he’s convinced Barry, has the power to control him mentally.
But the biggest alteration lies in the decision to stage the actual dinner. That allows for the introduction of the other participants’ chosen schmucks—a blind fencer, a medium who converses with dead animals (including the lobster main course), a guy with a super-extravagant beard. But they’re portrayed far more benignly than one might fear. And the dinner’s used both to give its long-time members—especially Fender and Mueller, who turns out to be his evil European cousin—their just deserts, and to free Barry from control by the manipulative Therman, whom Tim’s chief rival has brought as a guest. Need one add that Barry’s also instrumental in ending the discord between Tim and Julie?
Obviously Veber’s French parable about important folk who get their jollies from humiliating their supposed inferiors having the tables turned on them has been turned into something much more sitcomish, or if you prefer more American. And it’s morphed into a predictable tale about two totally dissimilar guys who become true friends by going through a series of comedic adventures, learning life lessons in the process. But though a fancier of the original might lament the loss of its edgier elements, the alterations and additions work pretty well. The script is expertly constructed: with only a few exceptions, the episodes link up nicely, produce some very funny situations, and pay off in big laughs. (And it doesn’t go in for grossness: there’s some salty stuff, but not the excess of sexual material so common in American comedy nowadays.) Director Jay Roach handles it all skillfully, without hammering the jokes home too heavily. The technical side is also first-rate, from Jim Denault’s crisp cinematography to Theodore Shapiro’s bouncy music.
And the cast is great. Rudd is an old hand with this kind of role, having mastered it in plenty of past pictures like “I Love You, Man” and “Role Models.” Galifianakis has his moments, as do Szostak, Punch and particularly Walliams. But Clement really goes to town in a wild part that should do as much for him as Aldous Snow did for Russell Brand. And the bench is deep: Kristen Schaal as Tim’s secretary and Larry Wilmore as a wisecracking executive lead a roster of colorful players further down the line.
But it’s Carell who makes the movie. “The Office” has proven that he can play the hapless nitwit with the best of them, but he outdoes himself here, blending blithe obliviousness with an equal measure of likable charm. And he’s aided enormously by the amazing dioramas made by Joel Venti and the Chiodo brothers, which are both hilarious and artful. They’re featured prominently throughout, but are also included in a summing-up sequence during the final credits, which you’re advised to stay for.
Like some of the best French wines, “The Dinner Game” probably wouldn’t have traveled well if it had been copied too closely—certainly most of the earlier Hollywood remakes of Veber films haven’t survived the process. But in this case, the makers have managed to remold it into something that successfully exchanges the satiric bite of the original for a healthy, satisfying dose of Hollywood slapstick and sentiment.