The Other Guys and Dinner For Schmucks: the stars shine but the movies don’t

by Mark Burger

The Other Guys reunites writer/director Adam McKay and producer/star Will Ferrell, who previously scored box-office hits with Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004), Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006) and the much-simpler titled Step Brothers (2008).

This time Mark Wahlberg’s along for the ride, playing straight man to Ferrell. Of course, one of Ferrell’s comedic facets is playing it totally, absurdly straight even in the face of chaos. Nevertheless, the two actors have an unforced chemistry in a film that needs all the help it can get.

That’s not to say The Other Guys is a bad film. It’s hardly disagreeable, and it passes the time in reasonable fashion, but it’s not terribly inspired either. Too often the “plot,” such as it is, interrupts the more irreverent, free-wheeling moments. Concentrating on one aspect or the other might well have served the film better. Better to have jettisoned any semblance of story and go full-tilt farce. Trying to do both, The Other Guys is rendered routine. It’s Just Another Buddy-Cop Comedy.

Ferrell’s Allen Gamble and Wahlberg’s Terry Hoitz aren’t New York’s finest, though it’s not for lack of trying. When departmental hotshots and resident supercops Highsmith and Danson (Samuel L Jackson and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, respectively) come to a sudden end (very possibly the film’s best gag), Gamble and Hoitz are determined to pick up where they left off and distinguish themselves in the eyes of their fellow cops and the city at large.

At which point the film’s story comes into play, with Steve Coogan and an unbilled Anne Heche as Wall Street wizards plotting a major financial rip-off right under New York City’s collective nose. As our dim-witted duo pieces the clues together — none too readily, it might be added — they find their own lives endangered, at which point the obligatory car chases and firepower come into play.

The ever-alluring Eva Mendes plays Gamble’s adoring wife, and Michael Keaton does what he can with the stock role of the exasperated police captain who must, in typical big-screen police-captain fashion, strip Gamble and Hoitz of their badges and guns — forcing them to crack the case on their own. (In an unusual but not unwelcome nod to baseball history, Keaton’s character is named after the legendary manager Gene Mauch.)

Although box-office success is fairly assured, The Other Guys ranks as the least of the Ferrell/McKay collaborations to date. It could be worse, true, but it could also be better. A lot better, actually.

Dinner For Schmucks is the latest in a long line of American remakes of the French comedies of Francis Veber, the vast majority of which (The Toy, Partners, The Man With One Red Shoe, Three Fugitives, Father’s Day, etc.) have failed in varying degrees.

Directed by Jay Roach, Dinner For Schmucks , a remake of Veber’s 1999 arthouse hit The Dinner Party, is better than most but hardly an unqualified success. There are laughs, to be sure, but the film takes forever to get to the proverbial main course, by which time the story’s momentum is definitely on its last legs.

As in Veber’s film, the concept is rife with possibilities. Paul Rudd plays Tim, a hotshot investment banker on the fast track to a promotion and that all-important corner office. Tim gets his first taste of the “executive strata” when he is invited to an elegant dinner hosted by his boss (Bruce Greenwood). There is, however, one caveat: Tim is to bring the biggest idiot he can find, so that they can be mocked in between courses.

Tim finds his “dinner date” in Barry (Steve Carell), a quirky IRS auditor who specializes in creating artistic dioramas using dead mice. Barry is so clueless and oblivious that Tim can’t help but believe he’s found a real winner — er, loser — for dinner.

In the time between their meeting on the street — Tim hits Barry with his car while Barry is leaning over to fetch a dead mouse — and the actual dinner, Barry consistently succeeds in upending Tim’s life. Despite his best intentions, Barry’s efforts yield calamitous results, particularly in Tim’s relationship with his live-in girlfriend Julie (Stephanie Szostak), an art curator whose latest client, the swaggering Kieran (Jemaine Clement), Tim takes an instant dislike to, suspecting that he’s got his eye on more than Julie’s curatorial abilities.

Carell and Rudd previously worked together in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004) and The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005), and there’s a nice give and take between them. Rudd’s (by-now) patented slow burns are the perfect response to Carell’s wide-eyed bumbling. Rudd is also adept at physical comedy, and Carell, adopting an oddly appealing vocal inflection that’s not quite a drawl, does a good job of bringing this misfit to life. Clement also brings some laughs as the preening Kieran, but Szostak is relegated to merely playing the Girl. Far more successful is Lucy Punch as a deranged former one-night-stand of Tim’s whom Barry drags back into his life, with predictably disastrous consequences.

The title Dinner For Schmucks aroused some pre-release controversy due to its wording. In Yiddish, the term “schmuck” is not one of endearment, although it could be argued that it’s one of endowment. Oddly enough, not once is the film’s dinner referred to by that name.

The film’s most potent aspect is in its depiction of artwork. Barry’s mouse dioramas (created by the Chiodo Brothers) and Kieran’s self-aggrandizing, semi-Goth portraits never fail to reap laughs, and exhibit a comedic creativity often missing from the rest of the proceedings. Dinner For Schmucks cries out for edginess, yet like so many American comedies it’s soft in the middle.

Not unlike The Other Guys, Dinner For Schmucks passes the time painlessly enough, with some laughs along the way, but it’s not a very hearty meal, despite a running time (115 minutes) that would seem to indicate otherwise. Dinner is merely the afterthought.

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