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MOVIE REVIEW: Broad comedic appeal is both strength and weakness of "Dinner for Schmucks"

Photo by Photography by: Merie Weismiller

Photo by Photography by: Merie Weismiller

Dinner for Schmucks (PG-13)

2 stars out of 4

Given the premise, source material and collective talent involved, it would be nearly impossible to make it through "Dinner for Schmucks" without laughing hard at least a couple of times. Even a broken clock is correct twice a day.

Rarely has a movie been able to appeal in some way to every comedic taste under the sun -- which is the film's only strength and its ultimate downfall. It wants to be everything to everybody and as a result, its hits are less frequent than its misses.

Feeling more like a variation on "The Cable Guy" than the French film ("Le Diner de Cons") from which it was adapted, "Dinner for Schmucks" has been getting less attention for content than its title. There are nearly a dozen English translations for the French word "cons" and none of them are printable here. When the film was exported to the rest of the world in 1998, it was rechristened with the lukewarm and yawn-inducing title "The Dinner Game."

Given your own understanding of the word, "schmucks" could also be shocking and profane and in context, still carries an equal level of insulting offensiveness. The "schmucks" in this movie aren't mentally disabled but are odd, eccentric and socially inept. For the most part they're safe and innocuous, but you can be sure some fringe group somewhere will scream foul citing political incorrectness and/or minority insensitivity sometime before the weekend is over.

The principal schmuck is Barry (Steve Carell), an IRS employee who spends every second of his free time creating painstakingly detailed dioramas featuring dead, stuffed mice dressed as humans. While bending over in a busy street to retrieve a freshly deceased vermin, Barry is hit by a car driven by Tim (Paul Rudd), an up-and-comer at an investment firm whose top brass hosts a weekly dinner party specifically designed to make fun of people like Barry.

In no time, Tim realizes Barry would make the perfect dinner guest -- something that would ensure him a place within a most pathetic inner circle of wealthy cretins. There's just once catch: Tim's classy, art curator girlfriend Julie (Stephanie Szostak) rightfully finds the whole frat-boy practice deplorable and threatens to leave him if he goes through with it.

With about 15 minutes of perfect setup under their belts, director Jay Roach (the "Meet the Parents" and "Austin Powers" franchises) and screenwriters David Guion and Michael Handelman spend the better part of the next hour on largely unrelated possible love triangle subplots involving Tim, Julie, Barry, a self-absorbed primitive artist, a female stalker, Barry's power-mad co-worker and someone's ex-spouse. Also in the mix is a filthy rich art collector from an unspecified European country who appears to have something funny to say but never delivers.

A few viewers will appreciate Carell here because Barry is a near carbon-copy of his Michael Scott character from "The Office." Clueless, abrasive, backslapping and lacking a brain-to-mouth filter, Barry is essentially Michael's shut-in, underachieving brother. Rudd is good and even better when doing physical sight gags but he has shown brighter in other movies and is left holding the largely thankless, straight-man bag.

Far more comfortable with broad and mainstream, Roach occasionally dips his toe into the bleak, edgy end of the humor pool but quickly withdraws it every time. He should have done the whole movie like "Meet the Parents" or passed altogether. This material is highly flexible in nature but can only rendered loud and obvious or squirmy and dark. There is no workable middle ground. (Paramount)