A dozen years ago there was a black comedy French film called Le diner de cons. The story is about a group of prominent French businessmen who hold a weekly dinner to see who could invite the biggest idiot. The film was popular and spun off into a theatrical version and there was a Hindi remake in 2007 called Bheja Fry. Predating the French film by another 10 years was the American independent film Dogfight. Dogfight made a paltry 300 grand, not enough to buy an average priced house today in Calgary, even after making the adjustment for inflation. Similarly, the rarely seen and very good, 1991 River Phoenix film involves a group of young marines headed to Vietnam staging a dinner in which the marine with the ugliest date wins the titular “dogfight”. There seems something especially cruel about using the pretence of hospitality to ridicule someone who is different. The inversion of hospitality, a historically sacred institution in Western society, makes for an interesting premise but doesn’t guarantee a great story…

Dinner for Schmucks is a DreamWorks 70 million dollar juggernaut comedy directed by Jay Roach of Meet the Parents and Austin Powers franchise fame. Roach has a platinum record for making popular comedies but is a not so subtle director who gives free license to his actor/comedians to chew on scenery making great characters, at the expense of story. Steve Carrell of The Office, Bruce Almighty, and The Legend of Ron Burgundy heads an all star comedy cast that includes Zach Galifianakis and Paul Rudd. It is a talent heavy film desperately in need of a straight man, or rather a team of straight men to counter the zaniness of its comedic pantheon. The story is essentially the same as the French original but more madcap and screwball and burdened with sentimental treacle and a populist pleasing ending that undermines what could have been a dark and funny film.

Tim (Paul Rudd) is an executive and career climber looking for an opportunity when after a successful deal his boss invites him to participate in a dinner for schmucks. Tim is offended by the idea and at the behest of his fiancée declines. But fate tempts Tim when the next day he meets Barry, a loser of unfathomable quality, and he invites the rodent taxidermist to the party for an easy victory. But, another idiot guest named Thurman (Galifianakis) arrives and ups the moronic ante.

Dinner for Schmucks is funny but considering the talent involved it has to be viewed as a failure. It is as if the story should be entitled A Film for Schmucks and the actors realize that they are the dupes of Hollywood studio filmmaking. Films like the Hangover have proven that R-rated material with edge can win audiences and it is time for Hollywood to take heed. Toning down material to appeal to family audiences may get more butts in the seats but the laughter ends up sounding hollow–like a forgettable sit-com’s laugh track.