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.
As he has so often in the past, Rudd plays a sensitive, modest man who's trying to be ambitious -- and is foiled by his own nature. Tim is nice to the point of acquiescence at the financial services company where he toils. At home, he's the romantic sort who withholds his own good news until his art curator girlfriend Julie (Stephanie Szostak) can tell him about her day.

When an opportunity for advancement presents itself, he's determined to break his self-imposed mold and push himself boldly forward. Finally catching the attention of the company's namesake owner, Lance Fender (Bruce Greenwood), Tim puts himself in line for a promotion.

All he has to do is find an unsuspecting loser willing to attend dinner with him. It's a basic story element that's apt to make one feel queasy. As described by Fender's underlings, Caldwell (Ron Livingstone) and Williams (Larry Wilmore), the business dinner is a cruel competition to see which aspiring executive can find the biggest fool to humiliate, amplified by a rule not to tell the "guest" the real point of the occasion.

It brings to mind Nancy Savoca's Dogfight (1991), in which young, Vietnam-bound men (including River Phoenix) competed to see who could bring the ugliest girl to a party. The dirtiness of the game could be attributed to callow youth and a less aware era (the early 60s). The successful executives playing the game in Dinner for Schmucks are no longer young nor living in an unenlightened time, so their actions take on a different dimension. They feel entitled to look down upon those whom they view as inferiors. It's also a way to weed out the achievers from the "wanna-be" peons; if you're not willing to step on people and make them like it, then you're not really cut out for success at Fender Financial Services.

That makes the premise sound like a grim thesis on the privileged class and the downtrodden lower class, but all of this rambling meditation is subtext. Up on top, Rudd is the quintessential straight man to Carell as Barry, the fool on the hill with a heart of gold who is obsessed with taxidermy and functions quite nicely as a human tornado, destroying everything in his path.

Barry doesn't mean to hurt anybody or anything, and, to be fair, is too dense to realize that he's causing any destruction at all. He lives in his own head, immune to the charms and dangers of the world at large, cocooned in a child's-eye snow globe where he lives without apparent consequences. He and Tim "meet cute" when Tim runs him over with his car. (Of course, Barry simply pops up with no lasting effects.)

After the collision, Tim can't disengage from the wreckage. Shamed by his girlfriend, he's been trying to get out of attending the "dinner for winners" without hurting his chances for promotion, but Barry spouts gibberish, dresses and treasures stuffed mice he finds on the streets and highways, and keeps a book of photographs, reenacting great moments in history with mice in the lead roles. It's too perfect, and the illicit schemer in Tim's heart can't resist the temptation to invite Barry to the company dinner.

From there, the movie bobs and weaves its way around any number of obstacles, merrily employing slapstick, clever one-liners, withering rejoinders, and, really, a kitchen sink full of comedic devices. The supporting cast gets their moments to shine, as well: Jemaine Clement pops up as a deadpan, deadly serious artiste, Zach Galifianakis lends his odd presence as an IRS supervisor with an unusual power, Lucy Punch is a particularly deranged ex-girlfriend, and David Walliams provides Swiss shtick as a wealthy potential client.

The film brings to mind What About Bob and Meet the Parents, the latter of which Roach also directed, comic stories in which one character is at the eye of a hurricane that affects everyone else. The difference with Schmucks is that Tim knows he's facing an ethical and moral dilemma -- should he really be using Barry to his own selfish advantage? -- and does his very best to avoid dealing with the issues that are surfacing.

Tim pays a price, as does everyone else who enters Barry's orbit. The audience, however, can simply sit back and laugh at all the foolish antics up on screen. After all, none of us is like Tim or Barry.


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