Most comedies these days are full of dick jokes. But a good dickey joke? Now, there’s a rarity.
There are actually two stellar dickey jokes — both visual gags involving the bib-like, false shirt-fronts and funny man Zach Galifianakis — in “Dinner for Schmucks.” They are the best, and only subtle, jokes in the entire movie.
Of course, there’s a dick joke built right into the title of the film, given that the literal translation for “schmuck,” a Yiddish word, is “penis.” Schmuck is not, at least where I grew up, a word you toss around in polite company.
Its use in the title of the movie is indicative of both this particular film’s mandate, and Hollywood’s in general, when it comes to adapting a foreign comedy: Make it broader, and preferably cruder.
“Dinner for Schmucks” is the latest in a long line of French comedies that have been retooled for American audiences. It is an adaption of director-writer Francis Veber’s 1998 film, “Le Dinner de Cons” (“Dinner With Idiots”), which was released in the U.S. as “The Dinner Game.” (Veber’s film was based on his own play of the same name.)
Most of these French films, including “Dinner Game,” weren’t masterpieces to begin with. Dumb is dumb, no matter which side of the Atlantic you live on. (Sidenote: I grew up reading Vincent Canby in the New York Times but learned quickly, after following his enthusiastic recommendations regarding several truly dumb French comedies, that this usually discerning critic had a notable weakness for giddy Gallic farces. Every critic has an Achilles heel; this was his.)
The English-language remakes of dumb French comedies usually only make matters worse by liberally applying yellow hi-lighter to every character and joke. The sexy femme fatale in the French version becomes a predatory, lunatic nymphomaniac in the Hollywood one.
For every “Down and Out in Beverly Hills” (the clever, 1986 adaptation of Jean Renoir’s 1932 classic, “Boudu Saved From Drowning”) there have been a half dozen lesser attempts at American-izing comedies of French origin.
Anyone remember “The Man With One Red Shoe” (pictured), “Three Men and a Baby,” “The Woman in Red,” “Cousins,” “Jungle 2 Jungle” and “Father’s Day,” all made in the last quarter century?
Not a one is worth seeing a second time, though “Three Men” certainly impressed at the box office. Then again, neither are the French originals, with the exception of 1975’s “Cousine, Cousin,” the appealing French film of which “Cousins” was a remake.
That goes for “Dinner for Schmucks,” as well, made even dopier and more mawkish. Paul Rudd plays Tim Conrad, an investment advisor on the make whose boss invites him to a dinner where each guest is instructed to bring along — without revealing why they’ve been invited — a spectacularly foolish person. At the end of the evening, a mocking award will be handed to the biggest “idiot.”
Tim soon runs into (literally, with his car; subtle, this movie is not) Barry Speck (Steve Carell), an IRS employee who spends his spare time creating twee tableaux using dead, stuffed mice dressed up as humans. Obviously, Barry, a true naif, is the perfect guest for Tim to bring to the dinner.
Many allegedly hilarious adventures ensue, during which Barry, with the best of intentions but the worst of instincts, manages royally to mess up Tim’s life. It all culminates at the titular dinner party, a scene full of food fights, slapstick humor and general mayhem, little of it very funny. Tellingly, in the French movie, the hero and his foolish pal never make it the actual dinner.
Director Jay Roach (“The Fockers”), who has never boasted an especially light touch, seems particularly heavy-handed here. Jokes are laboriously set up for pay-offs that rarely seem worth the bother.
Not even the food looks particularly appetizing.