Steve Carell's character in Dinner for Schmucks is almost too pitiful for the jokes launched against him to be funny. It is a terrific performance making everyone else's condescension sound harsher than the writers likely intended. Comedy is often when something tragic happens to someone else. But when that someone is as sweetly guileless as Carell's Barry Speck — quiet as a mouse and using those rodents to make adorably dumb dioramas — the laughter is muffled by he-doesn't-deserve-that sighs.
Barry is even the patsy for another patsy conned into a dinner party where arrogant businessmen invite the dumbest people they can find for an evening of ridicule. Therman (Zach Galifianakis) is a co-worker claiming the power of mind control, which works so well on Barry that the faker is sleeping with his wife. That's the funniest mockery Barry endures, and used too sparingly for Galifianakis' fans from The Hangover.
Barry gets too close to our hearts for comedy because Dinner for Schmucks takes its time getting to the dinner table. Carell has lots of time to make Barry harmless while unconditionally bonding with Tim Conrad (Paul Rudd), his inviter to the party. Tim is a newcomer to the dinner game; impressing them with Barry's stupidity could mean a job promotion.
Because it is Rudd — an immediately likable actor — Tim's inner goodness is transparent. Rudd can also match Carell in the dumbness department, so playing the uptight half of an odd couple isn't his specialty. Screenwriters David Guion and Michael Handelman — reworking Francis Veber's 1998 French farce Le Diner de Cons — load the relationship with sniggering humor that plays flatter than expected with such casting.
The secondary characters almost compensate. Galifianakis plays the pseudo-mentalist with such deluded grandeur that he deserves a separate movie — or at least more time here than director Jay Roach offers. Jemaine Clement (HBO's Flight of the Conchords) is scarily invested in the weirdness of his character, a sex-starved artist whose studio resembles the Garden of Eden by way of Studio 54.
The business partners Tim wants to impress — especially The Daily Show's Larry Wilmore — bookend the movie with crisp comic timing. It's a shame that more time isn't focused on them acting high and mighty, to make their inevitable downfall sweeter.
But there's always something to like about Barry, played by Carell several I.Q. points below his best roles in The 40-Year-Old Virgin and on TV's The Office. Barry has the same misplaced confidence in how intelligent he truly is, and more vacant responses to anyone who disagrees. It takes a really smart actor to play this dumb. A smarter movie would use him better.
Steve Persall can be reached at email@example.com. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at its new address: tampabay.com/blogs/movies.