Movie reviews by Edwin Jahiel

Dinner Game, The (Le Diner de Cons, France 1998) *** 1/2

Written and directed by Francis Veber, adapted from his play. Le Diner de Cons. Photography, Luciano Tovoli. Editing, Georges Klotz. Produced by Gaumont International/Alain Poire Cast : Jacques Villeret (Francois Pignon), Thierry Lhermitte (Pierre Brochant), Francis Huster (Just LeBlanc), Daniel Prevost (Cheval), Alexandra Vandernoot (Christine), Catherine Frot (Marlene), Edgar Givry (Cordier), Christian Pereira (Sorbier), Petronille Moss (Louisette Blond). A Lions Gate release. In French with subtitles 80 minutes. Not rated. (If so would be PG-13)

A masterful French rib-tickler is the best farce of the year. It has also earned a major BQ award by the BBNMM Foundation -- which has no statutes, dues, newsletters or meetings. BQ stands for Brevity+Quality. Its symbol is a burrito, a small donkey.. BBNMM means Bring Back the Ninety Minute Movie.

Hollywood remakes of films are big business. Most of those are of earlier Hollywood movies. Next come French movies, especially comedies. Within this category, Francis Veber--the playwright, scriptwriter and film director-- has been involved in a record number of remakes. He directed some of them: The Toy, The Goat, Three Fugitives, etc. He Americanized several of his own scenarios : A Pain in the A... became Buddy, Buddy; The Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe became The Man with One Red shoe; La Cage aux Folles became The Birdcage; My Father the Hero kept its title; Les Comperes became Father's Day, and others.

Francis Veber's play Le Diner de Cons was a boulevard play in Paris (roughly, the equivalent of a Broadway), and a huge hit. Opening in 1993, it had a run of hundreds of performance over two-plus years to four (depending on the source). Jacques Villeret played Mr. Pignon, as he does in the film version. The movie adaptation is almost totally faithful to the stage-play which it airs out minimally and sagaciously.

The film was also a smash-hit in France in 1998. Its huge public came second only to Titanic's. It is almost ironical that this unspectacular, David-sized farce, was the main competitor to a behemoth, a Goliath among productions.

The major difference from stage to screen is that the American title was toned down to The Dinner Game. The French title translates as The Dinner of Idiots. Literally "con" has a sexual meaning but it is used overwhelmingly with no vulgar connotation, since its stands for "a fool, an imbecile, a creep, an idiot, an obnoxious man" and such. "Game" will do nicely, however.

The game --said to have been played by some in real life-- is this. A bunch of well-heeled, aging yuppies and practical jokers (farceurs, in French), meet regularly for dinner. They keep on the lookout for some poor benighted soul, a dum-dum, nitwit, fool of some kind who, unsuspectingly, will entertain them at his expense. Whoever discoverers the biggest fool wins a prize. It is a cruel game, but then farce can be a cruel genre.

Publisher and man about town Pierre Brochant thinks that he has found the ultimate idiot in the person of Francois Pignon. (Pignon, is a funny name in French, and discreetly symbolic, like those of some other characters. This aspect is lost on non-native speakers but that's of minor importance).

Pignon is employed at the Finance Ministry, which also, like our IRS, is in charge of taxes. This means that it deals with tax-evasion and cheating, which makes it a menace to the perpetrators. But short, stout and moon-faced Pignon is a nice, sweet, simple fellow whose pride and joy is the building of scale models of important buildings, statues, bridges and the like, with matches and glue.

Brochant invites, sight unseen, the naive, overwhelmed Pignon who comes to Brochant's ritzy apartment, so that the publisher can take his discovery to the group dinner. But hours before Pignon's arrival, Brochant, while playing golf, badly twisted his back and can hardly make it to the reunion. How sad! (Although the un-realism of farce makes even back-sufferers laugh). Pignon turns out to be better than anyone's wildest dreams, a world-class champion among fools.

The two men will never make it to the dinner. Brochant, after his initial amazement and hilarity at the little man's personality, will attempt repeatedly to get rid of him. Not only the bad back tortures him, but also Mrs. Brochant's call that she had left her spouse.

The news spread fast, followed by other, often hilarious complicationss that involve other characters too. All this in the presence of Pignon whom Brochant simply cannot shake off. Solicitous, kind-hearted, understanding Pignon whose own wife had abandoned him two years ago, is bent on being helpful. But whatever this well-meaning born bungler does or says -- to anyone --only worsens the mess and the confusions.

At various points, Brochant willy-nilly uses the services of his guest. Yet as soon as something positive emerges from this odd couple's collaboration, it is transformed by the well-meaning Pignon into a new screw-up. Eventually, when he discovers to his utter sadness the truth about his dinner invitation, he generously continues his attempts to assist Brochant, whose meanness is exposed and who begins to feel guilty.

Pignon, in short, is that old and none-too-rare character, a Holy Fool. But clever Veber, instead of lapsing into sentimentality keeps his cynical-satirical edge alive to the very last scene.

Essentially the movie is "simply" about two men, a speakerphone and an answering machine. Not so simply, in a main setting which is not a bit claustrophobic, it adjoins to the two anti-heroes a handful of perfectly and economically used comparses

Most memorable is Cheval (horse, in French) Pignon's colleague and friend, a sanguine, jolly fellow enlisted to help Brochant-- but he's also a bloodhound tax inspector ... and Brochant has not declared his collection of art.

( Could the name Cheval also be an in-joke, a reference to the real-life postman Cheval whose "naive" sculptures remind you of Douanier Rousseau's paintings and Antoni Gaudi's work?)

Veber's inventiveness is superb. He is clearly an inheritor of that greatest of all farce playwrights, Georges Feydeau (1862-1921) whose wild comedies of La Belle Epoque (mostly bedroom farces and variants, and still revived in France and abroad), are the funniest imaginable. These are merciless yet un-cruel satires, splendidly timed and dialogued, minutely plotted, absurdist within realistic frames, and built with the precision of the best Swiss chronographs.

At his best, Veber shares those traits. Also like Feydeau, even when dealing with potentially scabrous set-ups and send-ups, he maintains a certain elegance, old-fashioned yet updated to late 20th century mores and manners but neither vulgar nor gross-out, the way film comedy increasingly is.

Though well subtitled, The Dinner Game's dialogue cannot have the full humor and impact of the spoken lines. Nor is the opening song untransalted. And, on the phone, Pignon's "Belgian" accent --something the French think is most funny-- as he pretends to be a movie producer (don't ask), of course does not come through to non-Francophone audiences. In my case, the only unbelievability was the easy parking of cars before Brochant's chic building -- a miracle in choked up Paris.

There is, however, a mother lode of reparteee, gags, and qui pro quos that come through with absolute clarity. The proof of this is that Veber plans a Hollywood version of the picture, as The Schmuck's Dinner, most likely starring (shudder) Robin Williams.

Copyright © Edwin Jahiel

Movie reviews by Edwin Jahiel