The Dinner Game
One of the summer's most anticipated comedies, 'Dinner for Schmucks' (opening this Friday), is based on the much loved 1998 French farce 'The Dinner Game' ('Le dîner de cons'). The latter was written and directed by Francis Veber, whose movies have been translated with varying degrees of success -- sometimes by Veber himself -- into many an American remake, including 'The Birdcage,' 'The Toy,' and 'Three Fugitives.'

Advance word is that 'Schmucks,' directed by Jay Roach, is one of Veber's funnier offspring. It's about a regular Joe (Paul Rudd, straight man extraordinaire) who, seeking a promotion at his cutthroat financial firm, tries to impress his boss by bringing the biggest "schmuck" (Steve Carell) to a dinner in which guests are instructed to Bring Your Own Idiot. Carell's character, a very eccentric IRS employee, is just one of several over-the-top dopes who convene for the big evening.

But what of the original? Is it anything at all like the new movie? And should you rent 'The Dinner Game' even though 'Schmucks' is playing in your local theater? Let's take a look. The Dinner Game
One of the summer's most anticipated comedies, 'Dinner for Schmucks' (opening this Friday), is based on the much loved 1998 French farce 'The Dinner Game' ('Le dîner de cons'). The latter was written and directed by Francis Veber, whose movies have been translated with varying degrees of success -- sometimes by Veber himself -- into many an American remake, including 'The Birdcage,' 'The Toy,' and 'Three Fugitives.'

Advance word is that 'Schmucks,' directed by Jay Roach, is one of Veber's funnier offspring. It's about a regular Joe (Paul Rudd, straight man extraordinaire) who, seeking a promotion at his cutthroat financial firm, tries to impress his boss by bringing the biggest "schmuck" (Steve Carell) to a dinner in which guests are instructed to Bring Your Own Idiot. Carell's character, a very eccentric IRS employee, is just one of several over-the-top dopes who convene for the big evening.

But what of the original? Is it anything at all like the new movie? And should you rent 'The Dinner Game' even though 'Schmucks' is playing in your local theater? Let's take a look.

The Original Story
'The Dinner Game' is, unsurprisingly, a lower-key, more modest affair than its Hollywood remake. Thierry Lhermitte stars as Pierre, an attractive, arrogant book publisher whose circle of equally smug Parisian professionals hold regular dinners and compete to bring the biggest con (idiot) as a guest. They often scout out available idiots and call each other excitedly when a particularly good specimen has been unearthed.

The Dinner GamePierre hears about François Pignon (Jacques Villeret) -- a chubby, schlubby taxman whose passion is building landmarks out of matchsticks -- after a friend discovers him on a train. The night of the next big dinner, Pierre, who fakes interest in publishing a book about the matchstick creations, invites a very excited François to his place beforehand to get to know him better. Earlier in the day Pierre strained his back playing tennis, which his guest soon aggravates by falling on him, so they never actually make it to the dinner.

Instead, the movie consists of the hapless François, who is truly idiotic despite his good intentions, repeatedly attempting to "help" Pierre -- with his back strain, with his marriage woes -- while making everything increasingly worse. One of the movie's highlights is a series of ill-advised phone calls, including one François makes to Pierre's obsessive ex-mistress. Another catastrophic call is made to Pierre's friend Juste, his wife's former lover with whom Pierre suspects she is cheating (long story), causing the publisher major embarrassment. The long night also involves a visit from François' boss, a zealous tax auditor (and no slouch in the idiot department himself).


What Makes it Funny
• The dialogue is sharp and fast; not much is lost in translation. The friend who discovered François calls Pierre crowing, "I've got one!" "What's he like?" "A world champion!" François himself, upon discovering the dinner setup, identifies himself during one last phone call: "I'm your husband's idiot."

Jacques Villeret in 'The Dinner Game'• The actors: The late Villeret is tremendous as François. He's a great physical comedian whose expressive face and portly contours are a big part of what makes François such a ridiculous creature. His character's a cheerful, well-meaning sort who's clearly used to be the underdog. His enthusiasm and desire to be needed invoke our sympathy, but he repeatedly sabotages himself -- and Pierre -- with his clueless hijinx. Lhermitte is a great foil for Villeret; his Pierre may be casually cruel, but he's also believably human. And Francis Huster as Juste is tons of fun as the supportive friend who can't help but enjoy the indignities that Pierre -- now married to his ex -- is suffering.

What Makes It French

• The movie has an overall droll slapstick style combining broad comedy with dry humor in a way that's unmistakably Gallic.

• It's taken for granted that Pierre has a mistress (stereotypical French shrug), even if he no longer wants anything to do with her, which seems to have more to do with her personality than any moral qualms. And though Pierre stole Juste's girlfriend, the two are still good friends. Pierre does admit, "I don't deserve a friend like you," but still. Tres sophistiqué!

• The callousness of some of the characters is matter-of-fact, with little of the explanatory back story or vilification that would probably accompany similar American types. (Pierre's doctor: "In college, we used to invite ugly girls; the ugliest got a prize." Pierre: "Idiots are funnier.")

Though its casual mean-spiritedness may initially be off-putting, 'The Dinner Game' is entertaining from beginning to end, and Pierre certainly gets his just desserts for being an arrogant jerk. Plus, the movie, unlike so many comedies, is not completely predictable, which alone is reason to toss it in your Netflix queue.

Buy or rent 'The Dinner Game'
Get 'Dinner for Schmucks' showtimes and tickets
CATEGORIES Features