Dinner for Schmucks

Hollywood rarely does farce right. A pure, all-out farce usually has something dark at the center (death and adultery are common favorites), broad physical gags, clever misunderstandings, and buffoons in need of comeuppance. Most importantly, a farce never takes anything seriously. Its characters are two-dimensional, and any lessons they happen to learn are basic.

The reason Hollywood tends to mess up farce is that Hollywood is inclined to water things down, to soften the blow, to make movies as appealing to as many people as possible. That’s the business. Given the choice between making a film that thousands of people love and one that millions of people like, studios will usually choose the second one.

I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. I bring it up because I want to impress you with how insightful I am. Also, it’s why “Dinner for Schmucks” isn’t nearly as good as it ought to be. It’s a farce that can’t resist trying to make its characters lovable and sympathetic. It wants to have its cake and eat it, too, then get some of the icing all over its face in a comical fashion, and then make you reflect on the foibles of mankind while everybody hugs.

Based on the 80-minute French hit “Le d�ner de cons” (“The Dinner Game” in the U.S.), the 114-minute “Dinner for Schmucks” is about Tim (Paul Rudd), an analyst at a private equity firm trying to climb the ladder in his dog-eat-dog business. His boss (Bruce Greenwood) hints at a promotion but suggests it hinges on something the bigwigs do once a month: they host a dinner party where everyone is supposed to bring the biggest idiot they can find so the elitists can mock them. If Tim shows up with the most hilarious, delusional dimwit, Tim gets the job. Hey, in this economy you do what you need to to get ahead.

This is not a real thing that real people would do, nor is it likely that in real life a boss would use a game like this to determine whether he wants to promote an employee. Farce, you see. Nobody’s trying to convince you that this is plausible.

Tim’s girlfriend, Julie (Stephanie Szostak), discourages him from going along with the cruel prank, and Tim — a good guy, of course, since he’s played by perpetual good guy Paul Rudd — agrees. But then he stumbles across Barry (Steve Carell), an IRS agent who does taxidermy as a hobby and is the most clueless, clumsy, pathetic idiot Tim has ever met. It would be a waste not to take Barry to the party and win the promotion.

But before it gets to be dinnertime, Barry must inadvertently ruin every aspect of Tim’s life. That is how these things go. Barry is the type of character Steve Carell excels at, part Michael Scott from “The Office,” part Brick from “Anchorman,” part Andy from “The 40-Year-Old Virgin.” He is completely innocent, without guile, oblivious to sexual innuendo. You can’t hate him for screwing things up because he only has the best intentions. He’s just. Such. An. Idiot.

What he is not, however, is a real person. No one in real life is like Barry. He’s a combination of several different types of morons (and believe me, I know my morons). That isn’t a liability — Carell’s performance is frequently hilarious — until the moment arrives when we’re supposed to take his plight seriously and feel sorry for him.

No, movie! No! As viewers, we have different rules for different types of comedy. We’ll accept the outlandish, implausible things like the psycho stalker (Lucy Punch) who shows up at Tim’s apartment, and the cartoonishly pretentious artist (Jemaine Clement) working with Tim’s girlfriend, and the weird IRS guy (Zach Galifianakis) who believes he can control people’s minds, as long as 1) they’re funny and 2) it’s understood that this is all just for laughs. The minute you want us treat them like real people, our willing suspension of disbelief goes away. They AREN’T real people, movie. You went out of your way to make them as absurd and un-real as possible, for the sake of humor. You can’t change your mind. That’s bait and switch. THAT IS AGAINST THE LAW.

“Dinner for Schmucks” is fine as long as it sticks to its guns. Carell and Rudd, both immediately likable in almost everything they do, have worked together several times in the past, and it shows in their rapport and timing. The director, Jay Roach (“Meet the Parents,” the Austin Powers films), certainly knows his way around a sight gag. It’s the tone of the screenplay — by David Guion and Michael Handelman, whose other credit was the similarly uneven “The Ex” — that’s all over the place. This is a good movie that could have been terrific if it had being more single-minded. Millions will like it; few will love it.

B- (1 hr., 54 min.; PG-13, some profanity, brief partial nudity, a fair amount of vulgarity.)