There's an old tale in Hollywood that goes something like this.
At a sneak preview once of a big studio's new drama, the audience laughed and laughed. "What do we do?" the distraught director said. "They're laughing." "Well," said the producer, "if they're laughing, then it's a comedy."
I've heard people howl at movies so witless that I almost felt compelled to ask them why (although I probably would have phrased the question something like, "Are you insane?!"). At a screening the other night of Dinner for Schmucks, the new comedy from the Apatow School, and directed by Jay Roach (Austin Powers), hundreds of people who got in for free frequently laughed. I did, too, here and there, but it was a kind of doltish laughter, and I prefer to laugh smartish.
In fact, Dinner for Schmucks isn't very funny -- not in concept, not in execution. We laugh at the Austin Powers movies because they have well-formed comic set pieces, but also because they parody a recognizable kind of movie: If a bit falls flat, we still get that they just didn't quite nail a particular cliché of the genre.
There's no such subtext in Dinner for Schmucks, which seems to want to invent a genre and then parody it at the same time. The result is a movie made by close friends who crack each other up, but who have no one there to tell them to let other people in on the joke. It's The Office meets Office Space meets How To Succeed in Business ..., but without really trying.
Based on a 1998 French farce, Dinner for Schmucks revolves around the dilemma of Tim (Paul Rudd), who craves a promotion at his financial-services firm. During a staff meeting, he brashly proposes a money-making idea that the boss (Bruce Greenwood) likes. But before he gets the promotion, he has to audition at a company ritual: Attend a Saturday-night dinner with other top execs, and bring an idiot to belittle. If Tim's idiot is the most risible and pathetic, then Tim gets the job.
Tim's devoted girlfriend -- an art curator whose latest client is an over-sexed Euro-freak (Jermaine Clement) whose subject is himself -- doesn't like the idea. Neither does Tim, really, but he wants to bring home some extra bacon for his gal. Then, while driving home, he collides with Barry (Steve Carell), a pedestrian who jumps into traffic to pick up a dead mouse. He's an IRS employee and amateur taxidermist who poses mice in dioramas of art masterpieces ("The Last Supper") and Americana (Ben Franklin flies a kite). He's also unaware that he's an idiot.
And so you have a premise, but unfortunately, not a movie. The eponymous dinner occupies only the last 20 minutes or so, and the rest is Barry ruining Tim's life with his buffoonery. It's rarely funny, in part because Barry is too haphazard a character to believe. He knows about things like the world's smallest violin, and "champagne wishes and caviar dreams," but he thinks Tim made up the aphorism that "things happen for a reason." He was married, but he doesn't know what a clitoris is. This is all just stoopid.
As hard as it is to imagine the contrivance getting worse, it does when we meet Barry's boss (Zach Galifianakis), an amateurish character who thinks he can control people's minds. The schmucks at the dinner include a ventriloquist and his dummy-wife, a man who feeds tortellini from his mouth to his pet vulture, and a woman who channels dead animals (she goes into paroxysms when lobster dinner is served). It climaxes with Carell and Galifianakis on an unrestrained ad-lib-a-thon that tells us who the real schmucks are. (Oh, insight, insight: That was their game all along -- to make fun of themselves, and without even realizing it. Brilliant!).
Because the evil execs get their comeuppance (uh, sorry: spoiler alert), there's nothing truly offensive here, and the hirsute Clement, who prances around in a Pan outfit with his two model-nymphs, is certainly game. Now and then a sight gag works, as do a few inventive lines of dialogue. At the core of Dinner for Schmucks, there's a much darker movie about lonely obsessive people, but of course, Americans don't believe in loneliness. How could we, with so many channels to choose from? We're left with a movie that reminds me of a bowl of cereal that I covered with milk one morning before my shower, and then forgot to eat. By the time I got home from work at the end of the day, all I could do with the sopping mess left on my kitchen sink was pour it down the toilet.