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NEW YORK — A tale of new-friend stalkerdom so extreme it makes “The Cable Guy” look tame, “Dinner for Schmucks” mocks its central buffoon as mercilessly as the soulless execs it would scold for doing the same thing. Though not as guffaw-rich as previous efforts by the talents involved, it comes close enough to the mark to please their fans, spelling strong boxoffice appeal if not comic edge.
Though titled for the novel premise it borrows from the French film “Le Diner de Cons” — wealthy businessmen hold a party in which their bizarre guests are unwittingly competing for a “biggest idiot” trophy — “Schmucks” is actually more interested in the tortured relationship between one of the idiots in question, Steve Carell’s Barry Speck, and the young striver, Paul Rudd’s Tim Conrad, who invites him to the function against his better judgment.
After the two meet accidentally, Speck latches onto Conrad and refuses to let go, upending his love life and career in a matter of hours with lapses in judgment viewers must strain to accept. Where Carell’s “The Office” character Michael Scott combines outrageously bad judgment with vanity and self-delusion, Barry Speck is enough rungs down the IQ ladder that laughing at him is nearly unpleasant. If not for an occasional bit of good schtick (Speck playing dead in the face of danger, for instance), we might be inclined to shake our heads in sorrow and walk away.
Speck is, however, an idiot savant as a hobbyist, creating utterly charming dioramas out of stuffed mice wearing tiny costumes. Conrad’s co-workers may find them pathetic, but these creations supply the film with some redeeming moments of soul.
Though Carell and Rudd are both saddled with characters that just aren’t as interesting as many they’ve played in the past, the movie benefits from having drawn many gifted comedians to supporting roles. Screwy performances from actors like “Little Britain” vet David Walliams provide surprising pleasure alongside those (by Zach Galifianakis and Jemaine Clement) we already expect to be comic highlights; each adds a note or two of weirdness that is much needed here.
Director Jay Roach shows more restraint than he did in “Meet the Parents” and its sequel. Even in its free-for-all climactic sequence (where, inevitably, curtains go up in flames and the mighty are brought low), the action never reaches the point of stimulus overload. A good thing, given how broadly the screenplay has been lobbing indignities at the target pinned to Carell’s hapless but innocent schmuck.
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