The obscene title notwithstanding, Dinner for Schmucks has been sanitized for your protection. Notably, no one in the movie ever utters the word “schmuck,” and the ending is positively heartwarming in the way that everyone – good and bad – gets what’s coming to them. Dinner for Schmucks balances its fairly mild meanness and crudeness with an equal measure of mild sweetness and affirmation, and a weirdly zig-zaggy script that’s loaded with goofy oddities. The movie, like its protagonists, is nice at heart, but sometimes behaves badly.
Tim (Paul Rudd) is a nice guy who works in a shark tank, also known as an equity firm. He’d like to get ahead in the company, and comes up with a bright idea that gets him noticed by his boss, Fender (Bruce Greenwood). He’s invited to attend a “dinner for idiots,” where everyone brings as a guest the biggest eccentric they can find, so that Fender and associates can humiliate them. Then they give an award to the “best” of the unsuspecting victims. Tim’s tempted to do it, because he’d like to get a promotion and impress his girlfriend Julie (Stephanie Szostak), an art curator. This is a stupid plan, because Julie thinks that the whole thing is so appalling and cruel that she walks out on Tim just for considering it.
As fate would have it, Tim literally runs into Barry (Steve Carell). This is because Tim was driving while texting, which is an idiotic thing to do. Barry, on the other hand, was in the middle of the street retrieving a dead mouse, because his hobby is amateur taxidermy, and he specializes in incredibly detailed mouse dioramas, which he calls “mouseterpieces.” (The mouseterpieces – replicas of great works of art and reenactments of historical events, with mice – are really pretty cool.) Tim concludes that Barry is just the sort of guy whom one invites to the idiot dinner, which is how it comes to pass that over the course of 24 hours, well-meaning, kindhearted Barry almost singlehandedly destroys Tim’s life.
What’s the deal with Barry? Perhaps it’s the formaldehyde fumes, because he’s not particularly sharp, and he’s apparently incapable of interpreting even the simplest social cues, but he’s also genuinely nice. His true eccentricity is that he is apparently so clueless, so guileless, so gentle and so sincere that he’s virtually impervious to cruelty. He’s like the proverbial rubber in the great rubber vs. glue, everything-you-say-bounces-off-of-me-and-sticks-to-you debate – although he doesn’t know it. He just is it. With the best intentions, Barry manages to sabotage Tim’s relationship with Julie, help Tim’s stalker ex-girlfriend (Lucy Punch) find him and cause general mayhem. Barry also introduces Tim to Therman (Zach Galifianakis), a nutjob who believes that he has the power to control minds.
Galifianakis would have walked away with the movie if not for Jemaine Clement (Flight of the Conchords), who plays Kieran, a pompous, pretentious artist who says funny, outrageous, utterly nonsensical things. Barry’s a master of tiny, adorable, melancholy and slightly macabre works of art; Kieran specializes in massive, self-aggrandizing self-portraits of himself dressed as a goat. Clement, Galifianakis and to a lesser extent Punch and Kristen Schaal (Tim’s assistant Susana) keep the movie lively, offbeat and interesting, and run circles around Rudd and Carell, who are stuck playing out the inevitabilities of the plot. That is, what’s least interesting about Dinner for Schmucks is the main course; the best and most memorable bits are all the weird, unexpectedly inventive side dishes.
The point of all this, of course, is that the real idiots are the people who think that everyone else is an idiot – or something like that. If you’re an idiot for thinking that other people are idiots, and Dinner for Schmucks forces you to conclude that the idiots are the people who think that other people are idiots, then doesn’t that also make you an idiot? Maybe that’s too meta for this movie. Probably. But conveniently, the biggest idiots of Dinner for Schmucks are arrogant rich men who work in finance: easy targets, surely, ever since Christ let the moneychangers have it in the temple. (There’s a Christ mouse in Barry’s replica of The Last Supper, for what it’s worth.)
The movie, anyway, is not idiotic. It supplies an ongoing parade of quirky oddballs, misunderstandings, miscommunications, surprises and moments of slapstick, culminating in a farcical dinner party of epic eccentricity.