The truest comedy is the laugh of recognition and enlightenment. You won’t find much of that in this crass and crude remake of the French film, “The Dinner Game.” What you will find instead is that easier and far less satisfying category of humor — the smug laughter at someone’s expense. The problem is that this movie’s entire premise is that making fun of people who have dorky personalities is, as expressed twice by characters we are supposed to identify with, “messed up.” Therefore, it is especially icky that it tries to have it both ways, asking us to laugh at the bozos and then asking us to feel superior to the movie characters who are doing the exactly same thing.
In the French film, the main character is a wealthy man who has a competition with his friends to see who can bring the biggest loser to dinner. And so of course he has to learn some lessons about who the loser really is. But this is America, and our good guy can’t really be a big old meanie, even at the beginning of the film. So, we begin by casting Mr. Nice Guy, Paul Rudd as Tim, an analyst for a private equity firm desperate to get a promotion. His good-guy reluctance takes most of the emotional and narrative energy out of the story. When the big boss (Bruce Greenwood) gives him a chance to move up and he finds out it involves participating in the dinner-with-a-dork competition, he instantly and correctly identifies this as messed up, but then, when he literally bumps into a perfect specimen, he decides it must be fate, and invites him to the dinner.
The dork (I refuse to call him a shmuck, which is a Yiddish term that literally means a part of the male anatomy and metaphorically means a bad — as in untrustworthy — guy, not a foolish or nerdy one) is Barry, played by Steve Carell, having way too much fun with his fake teeth. Barry’s hobby is stuffing dead mice (yes, he is an amateur taxidermist, just like Norman Bates) and creating dioramas for them based on classic works of art and historical events. But once again, the movie can’t make its mind up whose side it is on, and the idea may be appalling but the renditions are actually quite lovely. (In the French film, the guy makes replicas of famous buildings from matchsticks.)
Despite Carell’s best efforts, Barry is not a character. He is just an engine for creating humiliating experiences for Tim. The essential inconsistency of his behavior and capacity obstructs any comedic pleasure in predicting what is going to happen. It’s as though we have to be continually re-introduced to him. On the other hand, one-note supporting characters like Tim’s stalker would-be girlfriend (wasting the talents of the delectable Lucy Punch), Barry’s colleague (Zach Galifianakis), and an oleaginous artist (Jermaine Clement) quickly become tiresome.
Here’s an idea for a movie — how about the story of a talented French writer/director who meets with Hollywood executives who want to re-make his excellent comedies like “The Toy,” “The Dinner Game,” “The Tall Blond Man With One Black Shoe,” and many more, into over-budgeted and under-funny comedies by clumsy Americans. Now, that is a dinner for schmucks.