Dinner for Schmucks is a near-hit. A remake of Francis Veber's The Dinner Game, it stars Steve Carell and Paul Rudd in a roundabout comedic takedown of corporate excess that has a strong start, a strong end, and a middling middle. It has a likable, effective ensemble cast and a premise that should but doesn't make for a successful film. In other words, Dinner for Schmucks is a miss.
Tim (Rudd) is a mid-level suit in climber mode at Fender Financial, a company that deals in money by the tens of millions. Tim's good at his job, and he looks for an angle to catch the eye of his boss (Bruce Greenwood). Tim's assistant (Kristen Schaal), desperate to make the leap with him upstairs in a package deal, prods Tim to be aggressive in the boardroom. And if he tries and fails? He'll be promptly shuffled off the corporate coil.
The bossman invites Tim to a special event he hosts regularly, where, essentially, all the company bigwigs invite idiots to dinner and make fun of them. The setup promises a worthy update of Office Space, post-Wall Street meltdown and bonus shenanigans — and, hey, there's the Office Space guy (Ron Livingston) as a rival executive. Tim better bring a quality doofus to the show, or else he's got no hope of succeeding in this Darwinian world of the bored privileged.
Tim's art-gallery-owner girlfriend (Stephanie Szostak) is not amused. But fate hands him the perfect idiot: Barry (Carell), a clueless dip who taxidermies mice and dresses them up and places them into cute vignettes that represent a perfect world. What to do?
From here until the climax, Dinner for Schmucks devolves into a comedy of errors, as Barry makes a merry mess of Tim's life. Side-plot characters include Darla, a one-night-stand-turned-stalker from Tim's past (Lucy Punch); Therman, Barry's co-worker who is now married to his ex-wife (Zach Galifianakis); and Kieran, the eccentric, self-involved artist who lusts for Tim's girlfriend (Jemaine Clement).
It's all a long-winded distraction — funny, even hilarious, sometimes — from what felt like the main point, and the film develops an undesirable tension of waiting for the long-delayed titular event.
Dinner for Schmucks finally gets there and regains its humorous zip even as it reveals that it never had anything going on deeper down. The wealthy bring in the dummies and laugh at them — and so do we, because they're funny and they do and say dumb things. But by making the audience complicit in the crime, our inherent anger at the situation pffts away as we cackle as Barry and Therman shoot mind bullets at each other. A little comeuppance for the villains can't change that.
The film ends, though, with an utterly charming epilogue that tells what happens next through more of Barry's mouse scenarios. More of that, please.