Steve Carell and Paul Rudd in 'Dinner for Schmucks' (Paramount Pictures)

I gotta go with my gut on this one, and my belly is still laughing. That came as a complete shock to me, because the premise sounded mean-spirited and dreadful: smug executives invite unwitting idiots to a business dinner where the point is to make fun of the idiots. How many laughs could a Hollywood remake of a 1998 French flick possibly wring out of that unappetizing idea?

Dinner for Schmucks walks right up to the edge of a deep pool of nastiness, dips its toes into the muddy waters, and heads for safer, kinder shores. It's not, then, a transgressive, offensive comedy, as you might expect if Sacha Baron Cohen had starred as originally intended (instead, he's listed as an executive producer). So, no, the film is not willing to pull out all the stops in a bracing examination of the human condition or to push the boundaries of acceptable subjects for ridicule. It is, however, very, very funny, smart and inventive, stupid and schmaltzy and sentimental. Schmucks also features a bracing dose of nonsense humor (the Chinese term is mo lei tau) that reminded me occasionally of the great Stephen Chow, albeit in Americanized form: quick parodies that burst forth, apropos of nothing, before receding into the woodwork; dialogue teleported in from outer space; visual gags that are sprinkled throughout the background, otherwise unremarked upon.

Paul Rudd makes it all palatable, especially in the early sequences where the chemistry between him and Steve Carell feels forced and awkward. It's intended to be a precarious dance between the two, of course, but played wrong it could easily end up souring the entire film.