Dinner for Schmucks (4/5)
It’s often been said that going to the movies is a religious act. And, for me, there is an element of truth in that. No, I’m not blasphemously suggesting that the cinema should replace church, synagogue or mosque. That’s a horrific thought. But, since I was a kid, the cinema has awakened religious thoughts in me. It was a mixture of the solemnity of the darkness and silence, the grandeur of the huge images on screen, the marvel of the special effects and elaborate sets, the intensity of the emotions evoked, and the general air of ceremony. Walking into a cinema is walking into a time and place that is somehow outside ordinary time and place.
But there’s even more to it than that. Despite the (justified) criticism of explicit sex and violence in the movies (not to mention the almost ubiquitious use of foul language) cinema is in general an intensely moralistic medium—much more so than TV. Aside from the occasional film noir or black comedy that might consciously depart from the conventions, most movies uphold a very old-fashioned morality. Greed is bad; family is good. True love ends in marriage and marriage ends in children. The family-run shop must be protected against the huge conglomerate. True beauty is on the inside, glorious defeat is better than victory, and the underdog is always the good guy. The first will be last, and the last will be first—at least by the time the credits roll.
Dinner for Schmucks is an admirable example of this ethos. The movie posters show a nerdy Steve Carrell—complete with heavy-rimmed glasses, bowl haircut and buck-teeth—grinning inanely. But I just knew that the film was going to be rooting for him. You could say that’s’s because cinema execs are too wise to offend nerds. But I think it goes deeper than that. There’s a part of all of us that cheers for the outsider and the eccentric– and that part of us that is fully awake in the cinema.
Tim Conrad (played by Paul Rudd), the straight man of the piece, is an ambitious businessman who desperately wants to get ahead to impress his beautiful and arty girlfriend. And of course, the managers who he has to suck up to are soulless creeps, who entertain themselves by hosting a “dinner for winners”—to which they invite a selection of eccentrics, in order to poke fun at them. A trophy goes to the wackiest specimen, and the kudos goes to the businessman who brought him.
But when Tim’s girlfriend, Julie, learns about the dinner, she forbids him to go to it. (This is another aspect of cinema’s old-fashioned morality—women are a civilizing, uplifting influence on men.) Tim reluctantly complies—until he runs into Barry Speck, the nerdy character played by Steve Carrell. Barry collects dead mice and arranges them into ingenious and tasteful tableaux. How can Tim ignore a gift like that?
You can guess how it goes from here—Barry sticks to Tim like a post-it note, Barry manages to reduce Tim’s life to chaos within a matter of hours, Tim loses the rag, Tim feels guilty, Barry and Tim slowly become friends in spite of everything, and in the end Barry ends up showing Tim what really matters in life. It’s the old, old story. But then, every good story is an old, old story.
There are a lot of other tasty ingredients in the mix—Tim’s nutty stalker, Barry’s mind-reading superior at the IRS, and an ultra-virile but soft-spoken modern artist who is trying to win Julie away from Tim. The laugh-rate is impressively high, and I found myself hooting on several occasions. And the finale, the “dinner for winners” itself, is highly satisfying. I don’t think I’m giving anything away if I tell you that it plays out very differently to how its organizers intend. But that kind of table-turning is just what we go to the pictures to see, isn’t it?.