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Dinner For Schmucks

Year: 2010
Studio: Paramount
Director: Jay Roach
Producer: Jay Roach
Writer: David Guion/Michael Handelman
Cast: Steve Carell, Paul Rudd, Zach Galifianakis, Jemaine Clement, Bruce Greenwood, David Walliams, Ron Livingston

Steve Carell and Paul Rudd were both shepherded to greatness under the Judd Apatow banner, so they're well schooled in the realistic banter improv that makes comedies like The 40 Year Old Virgin and Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy great.

Carell in particular has carved a very specific niche that he plays very well. A slight doofus while never stupid, kind of nerdy while not embarrassingly so, he's like the slightly kooky single uncle of the family. You don't laugh at him as much as with him – the pivotal aspect that made The 40 Year Old Virgin so good.

So he's completely miscast as the schmuck of the title as Barry, a socially inept tax assessor who makes a hobby of collecting dead mice and fashioning them into taxidermy scenes of love and happiness. Carell just doesn't do unselfconsciously stupid very well. Worse still, we're never sure of him – sure, he has a dumb streak, and he might just be bumbling but determined to help, but it all goes so disastrously wrong it comes across as mean, like he's an idiot savant carrying out some grand sociological experiment on whatever poor sap he fixates on.

The poor sap is Paul Rudd as Tim, hoping to impress at the finance company where he works and armed with a bold plan to move up. When he gets the attention of the higher ups, including a slightly creepy potential client for the firm (Little Britain's David Walliams), there's only one more bridge to cross to hit the big time. His boss (Bruce Greenwood) hosts a dinner once a month, and his attendees are expected to bring the biggest idiot they can find for the whole party to make fun of. Tim knows if he can nail it the promotion will be his.

When he (literally) runs into Barry in the street, he thinks he has his man. His good-natured girlfriend is horrified but Tim is determined to go ahead with his plan in secret, grooming Barry for the position and trying to ignore his conscience.

This is a remake of a French film and it'd be interesting to see how similar they are. The titular dinner isn't until the climax of the film, and with almost two hours to fill the screenwriters take proceedings in all sorts of kooky directions. There's a subplot of an ex beau of Tim's who's turned into a creepy stalker, Barry's hilarious tax office boss Therman (Zach Galifianakis) and an entire midsection of Barry turning up at Tim's place on the wrong night and leading him on a jealousy-fuelled wild goose change, convincing Tim his girlfriend is sleeping with her artist client Kieran (Flight of the Conchords' Jemaine Clement).

It's purely plot mechanics 101 to join points in the narrative, and it feels contrived and falls flat. Thankfully, you'll go to see it for the laughs and there are some genuine ones to be had, mostly at Carell's hands when he's on form (which isn't always). Rudd is lackluster as his straight man, and far more kinetic actors would have given the relationship the zing it needed, like Jim Carrey in his heyday or Martin Short.

When Apatow unleashes them with a script and a stage, Carell and Rudd are just two of the comic jewels of that particular crown. In this by-numbers studio effort, they're just going through the motions with one eye firmly on the cheque.

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