Whereas American filmmakers often prefer to produce comedies like Killers, French filmmakers frequently choose to produce killer comedies like The Dinner Game.
An award-winning money machine that premiered in its homeland back in 1998 (it reached our shores the following summer), this adaptation of a popular stage play was a subversively funny picture about a smug book publisher named Pierre who takes part in a game in which he and his buddies all invite the most boring or idiotic people they can find to a dinner simply to make fun of them. Sentimentality and sympathy had no place in this ruthless comedy, as Pierre was a venal character through and through: Whether he was juggling his wife and mistress or mocking those less fortunate than him, we knew it was only a matter of time before his designated "idiot" would inadvertently demolish his life — and we would cheer the destruction.
But, to paraphrase Homey the Clown, Hollywood don't play that. In the remake Dinner for Schmucks, the detestable Pierre has been transformed into the likable Tim (reliable Paul Rudd), who only accepts the dinner-game challenge because his reptilian boss (Bruce Greenwood) makes it clear that it will help advance his career, and Tim erroneously believes that his girlfriend (bright Stephanie Szostak) will only stay with him if he makes more money. So deep down, Tim feels awful about what he's doing, but he's forced to take part for the sake of ... love.
Oh, please. By hedging its bets so early, it's guaranteed that this can only end in cathartic tears and group hugs, exactly the sort of hypocritical stance that mars many a homegrown comedy. But here's the surprising thing about Dinner for Schmucks: Despite its squishy center, it still manages to sport a prickly exterior that leads to countless scenes of squirm-inducing hilarity, the sort of curdled comedy more often found in an indie effort than a mainstream studio offering. For that, primarily thank Steve Carell, whose performance as Barry, Tim's chosen one, nails the character's social ineptitude and physical retardation to an almost painful degree. As an IRS flunky whose hobby involves dressing up dead mice and displaying them in dioramas (subjects include the Last Supper and Evel Knievel's motorcycle jumps), Carell creates an endearing and infuriating individual, the sort of character dichotomy that can push screen comedy to darker places (see also Cyrus).
Unfortunately, Dinner for Schmucks peters out once it reaches the actual dinner party. Whereas the earlier sequences feature indelible and uncompromised comic turns by Jemaine Clement as a self-absorbed performance artist (basically, what's now known as "the Russell Brand role") and Lucy Punch as Tim's former one-night stand, now a psychotic stalker (the actress' bold performance compensates for the fact that here's yet another female character whose sexual appetite turns her into a creature to be feared and reviled), the finale crams in a number of broadly played "schmucks" and asks us to laugh at them before pitying them. But the laughs came earlier, when the movie stood by its comic convictions. The clever coda notwithstanding, the ending mainly offers a mild case of heartburn.
(Dinner for Schmucks: 13 area theaters.)