I once read that the secret to comedy is to “not act funny.” It’s about acting normal in situations where acting normal is the last thing one expects. Well, I was a believer until the other day. Then I saw Dinner for Schmucks and realized a new theory may be in order.
Every character is pitched one or two silly octaves above normal. There’s a heartless executive who is zanily heartless. There’s a psycho stalker ex-lover that would make Norman Bates blush.
There’s a narcissistic, hedonistic artist who looks like a wild animal, collects women in what looks like a jungle menagerie, and creates nothing but self-portraits. Tim (Paul Rudd) comments during the artist’s gallery opening, “They’re all so … big. And he’s in … all of them.”
There’s Susana (Kristen Schaal who voiced Trixie in Toy Story 3), the chattiest chatterbox of an office worker to ever make one wish he’d never left his cubicle to refill his coffee mug.
And at the center of it all is Barry (played hilariously by Steve Carell with a sensitivity that throws one off guard). Carell has been growing in my estimation with every movie. He’s as endlessly creative as Jim Carrey, but manages to always keep his inventions focused on his characters.
Barry is a taxidermist by day and hobbyist by night. He finds dead mice and grants them new lease. He stuffs them and dresses them as doctors and lawyers and husbands and wives wearing suits and dresses. He poses them in loopy little dioramas.
It’s a pastime that would qualify him as a schmuck – if he wasn’t so earnest. His creations are beautiful, charming, and playful. They’re perfect creations for this mouse of a man. And Carell’s most inspired bits are deliciously mousy as well.
At one point, trying to hide in plain sight after sneaking into the before mentioned artist’s house, he curls up on the floor in a little ball. Whenever he’s under attack, he plays dead. He’s threatened a lot. It works every time.
And maybe the funniest moment of all is when Tim twists his back and Barry pounces on him to straighten it out again declaring, “Don’t worry. I’m a licensed taxidermist.”
The “Dinner” of the title, surprisingly, accounts for only a morsel of the movie, near the end. Tim wants a promotion at his evil workplace, but his wicked boss has a tradition of only offering such career advancements to employees who are good at playing “the dinner game.”
Upwardly aspiring employees compete to see who can bring the biggest idiot to a dinner party – for the boss’ amusement. By the time the party occurs though, we’ve come to sympathize completely with Barry. He turns the dinner for schmucks on its ear.
The movie celebrates how the key to happiness can be learning to embrace your own inner idiot. And the final embracing image of Tim and Barry is its perfect expression.
Comedy is a funny thing. Sometimes what makes one laugh comes as a surprise and often the more stupid the joke the bigger the belly laughs. So I wonder. Maybe I don’t have to develop a new theory at all.
Maybe, I just need to give the old one a twist. Could Dinner for Schmucks be so funny because it’s all about acting funny in situations where acting funny is the last thing one expects? And Barry is just the sort of likeable creation to make it all work?