(Swans - September 20, 2010) There are some films that are so toxic they justify being sued for inflicting brain damage. Films that literally corrode the spongy tissue of one's hippocampus to an extent that inflicts permanent and irreparable damage. They appear to be churned out by pop comedians who have been weaned on TV sitcoms or graduated from the ranks of Saturday Night Live.
The latest of these venomous artifacts, director Jay Roach's Dinner For Schmucks, derived from Frances Veber's French film Le Dîner de cons ("The Dinner Game" is the title of the English release, perhaps more aptly translated "The Dinner of the Asses"), typifies the broad, over-the-top storylines that contain the kind of undergraduate humor, which, over the past six or seven years, has dominated moviemaking aimed at the younger moviegoer. Actors such as Steve Carell, Will Ferrell, Adam Sandler, Jack Black, and Ben Stiller are always to be found in outrageous contexts that strain credulity and rely upon maniacal extremism to wring laughs from a public that seems to rollick in implausible behavior and over-the-top high jinks laced with pratfalls and implausible narratives.
The premise of Dinner For Schmucks is that the pillars of high-powered corporation set aside a day every year for a dinner to which some unsuspecting idiot or retard (i.e., Steve Carell) provides entertainment; a premise conceivable in a nation like France where intellect is still respected and stupidity mocked but almost inconceivable in America where stupidity has a much less vengeful edge and most captains of industry are constantly in fear of lawsuits brought by harassed employees.
But what is most burdensome in these madcap films for goofballs is the absence of genuine comedy, witty narratives, or anything resembling sophistication. It's as if there had never been a Preston Sturgis, a Betty Comden, or an Adolph Green, a Ruth Gordon or a Garson Kanin -- that's to say tart, witty, truly comedic screenwriters who wrote for the educated palates of grown-ups; scripts and storylines that were directed to a large majority of Americans and could register with the middle-class public as well as nests of teeny-boppers.
In regard to Dinner For Schmucks, allow me to suggest that the term "Schmucks" is perhaps the wrong choice for the nature of the character played by Steve Carell. A schmuck -- bluntly -- is a penis and, according to Leo Rosten, the High Priest of Yiddish vernacular "a detestable fellow; a son of a bitch." Which cuddly Carell is not. It might more suitably have been called Dinner For Shlemazels; that's to say, someone who causes "an uproar, a fight, a confusion -- a lot of rhubarb." Or possibly a shlemiel, which according to Rosten is "a foolish person; a simpleton; a submissive and uncomplaining victim. A poor shlemiel, as Rosten suggests, is the kind of guy who always gets the short end of the stick. The shlemiel is the kind of guy who "falls on his back and breaks his nose." Or it might have been more appropriate to title it Dinner With A Nebbish, a "nebbish" being "an innocuous, ineffectual, weak, helpless, or hapless unfortunate. A Sad Sack. A Loser." Rosten illustrates with an anecdote. "A nebbish pulled into a parking place on a busy street in Tel Aviv. Along came a policeman. 'Is it all right to park here,' asked the nebbish. 'No,' said the cop. 'No?! But look at all those other parked cars! How come?' -- 'They didn't ask,' the cop replies."
All of this, I accept, is cruel pedantry. Finally, another and more accurate way of describing Jay Roach's film is to have called it Dinner With A Shmendrik, the latter being "someone who can't succeed but thinks he can, and persists in acting as though he might. Such a person has all the unrealistic hopes of a shmendrik."
An apposite summation of what makes this film so dreary.
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