Dinner Game, The (France , 1998)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

It must be that I just don't get French humor, or at least not of the sort that attracts French movie-goers to theaters like bugs to bright lights. Several years ago, The Visitors became one of the top homemade box office successes in French history. It was hailed as one of the funniest films of all time, yet I was underwhelmed (and, judging by its dismal performance here, so were most North Americans). Now, The Visitors has been toppled from its perch by The Dinner Game, a modestly budgeted effort from filmmaker Francis Veber, whose previous credits include directing Les Comperes (U.S. remake title: Fathers' Day) and writing La Cage aux Folles (U.S. remake title: The Birdcage). Reports from overseas claim that one in every six French citizens has seen this movie. Those are Titanic numbers, yet the film doesn't really live up to expectations. Yes, there are times when the comedy works, but the number of genuinely amusing sequences are outnumbered by those that, in trying to generate laughter, simply seem silly.

Pierre Brochant (Thierry Lhermitte) is a bored, arrogant publishing executive who livens up his upper class existence by attending "idiot dinners" hosted by his friends. For these soirees, each attendee is required to bring along a guest who embodies some aspect of human stupidity. The oblivious idiots, not understanding that they are the butt of a private joke, are flattered, and their sponsors enjoy the competition of trying to outdo each other by bringing the dimmest bulb in the lot. Then, one day, Pierre meets François Pignon (Jacques Villeret), a tax official whose hobby is building models of famous landmarks with matchsticks (his Eiffel Tower used over 346,000 matchsticks). In François, Pierre believes he has found the perfect idiot for the next dinner. Unfortunately, on the night of the event, Pierre throws out his back and is unable to attend. His newfound friend, however, insists on staying around to "help" him, resulting in a series of mini disasters that leave Pierre's comfortable life in ruins. Call it the idiot's revenge.

The Dinner Game is constructed as a screwball comedy, and, like all such motion pictures, it relies on timing and a constant escalation of comic momentum. This film can boast the former; it lacks the latter. There are the requisite mistaken identities, garbled messages, and other assorted oddball occurrences, but the humor in The Dinner Game doesn't build to a suitably madcap climax. The comic apex occurs when a tax auditor (played by Daniel Prévost) pays a visit to Pierre's house, forcing him to hide all of his undeclared art work in a back room (leaving the living room walls denuded of paintings) and taint his best wine with vinegar. There are some droll moments during that scene, especially when Pierre's friend, Juste (Francis Huster), finds amusement at the way circumstances have aligned against Pierre. Afterward that, however, the comedy fizzles and the movie closes with an ineffective feel-good moment.

Jacques Villeret, who gets by primarily by twisting his expressive face into odd configurations and letting his eyes bulge, could be the cousin of The Three Stooges' Curly. Villeret is an enjoyable guy to watch, but there are only so many laughs that his brand of comedy can generate before its effectiveness wanes. Thierry Lhermitte presents Pierre as a suitably arrogant individual who is primed for a fall. Lhermitte makes his character a dislikable individual so that, instead of feeling sorry for him or sympathizing with him as his circumstances go from bad to worse, we take on the role of the voyeuristic sadist and enjoy his suffering. In addition to Daniel Prévost and Francis Huster, solid support is provided by Alexandra Vandernoot as Pierre's wife and Catherine Frot as his mistress.

Certain aspects of The Dinner Game are undeniably witty, but wit doesn't always equate to humor. It's possible to observe a movie and recognize that a scene is intended to be funny without being moved to laugh. That was a reaction I frequently experienced during this film. As motion picture comedies go, The Dinner Game is neither inept nor badly done. However, it does not deliver the level of enjoyment one might expect based on its reputation. (The film is scheduled to undergo an American re-make, with Veber directing and Robin Williams starring; hopefully, the results will be more in line with The Birdcage than Fathers' Day.)

Dinner Game, The (France , 1998)

Run Time: 1:20
U.S. Release Date: 1999-06-25
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity)
Subtitles: In French with English subtitles
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1