The Dinner Game (1998, dir. Francis Veber)
You’ve no doubt seen the trailer or commercials for the upcoming Paul Rudd/Steve Carrell film Dinner for Schmucks. This is its source material, a very small and wry French comedy that, unlike the American version never makes it to the titular dinner. Instead, we get a very clever farce from the same director that brought us La Cage Aux Follies and many other French comedies brutally remade by American studios. I’m beginning to think studios simply wait around for him to release a film so they can rush to produce a butchered remake. While not the kind of funny the American remake is shooting for, The Dinner Game will make you laugh through clever wordplay and increasingly convoluted misunderstandings
Pierre Brochant is excited about the weekly “idiots dinner” held by he and his businessmen friends. He comes upon Francois Pignon, Finance Ministry employee (think IRS agent) whose obsession is building landmarks out of matchsticks. Brochant sees this man as the perfect idiot to bring along with him. However, his wife has left him and he has injured his back on the golf course on the same day he is to take Pignon to the dinner. The squat little man arrives, thinking Brochant is offering him a book deal about his matchstick constructions. Over the course of the evening, Pignon helps Brochant makes fake phone calls to track down his wife, mistakes the wife for the mistress, and brings on of his auditing buddies over to help out, unwittingly revealing some shocking infidelities. The film appears to be heading down a maudlin path when it returns to its comedic elements in a very clever way.
Pignon is a very endearing character. He has had his wife leave him and wants to legitimately help Brochant, but he possess a short term memory and care barely retain the simple plans they hatch when calling people they believe Brochant’s wife is with. Jacques Villeret plays the role of Pignon and manages to keep him from becoming a dolt. He’s a clever, sensitive, eager to help simpleton and the audience sighs with relief when we realize he won’t be subjected to the cruel evening Brochant has planned. From what I have seen of Schmucks, I get the feeling Carrell is playing a much broader, less sympathetic version of this character and that’s a shame.
The Dinner Game plays like stage play. It’s one set with characters coming in and out, a perfect comedy of errors. Schmucks looks like it is uninterested in the simplicity of the original and is opting for complex set pieces involving outsiders that we don’t sympathize with but mock. The overly sentimental finale that the original avoids feels all but inevitable for the American remake. The irony here is that The Dinner Game emotionally earns that ending if it wants, while I suspect Schmucks will be so mean spirited that when it comes to that “our hero learns a lesson” moment it will come off as ludicrous.