International film critics who have raved about veteran French farceur Francis Veber's The Dinner Game (Le Diner De Cons), only to qualify the goings-on in this serviceable but meringuey little chuckler as "cruel" and "punishing," clearly haven't taken in a comedy by American filmmaker Neil LaBute. In much the same way some of us brought a change of underwear to The Blair Witch Project after the Sundance town criers had promised us bladder-disrupting jolts in our seats, so the double shot of Cannes-Cesar Awards for The Dinner Game had us preparing for French snootiness amped to the level of the best plays of the Restoration. You know, back when the English monarchy was reinstated, theaters were reopened after a Puritan crackdown, and audiences were hungry to watch cruel, witty individuals savage their social and intellectual inferiors -- with a good chance that the plebeian scorned would rise up and smite their persecutors.
As both playwright and scriptwriter, LaBute is America's foremost exponent of this form with In the Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbors. Also as playwright and scriptwriter, French filmmaker Veber has previously positioned his actors as toy soldiers firing shots across the enemy lines of class, but mostly as subplots in his ultra-successful first two La Cage aux Folles films and 1976's Le Jouet. The Dinner Game marks the first time Veber has rendered a class-based comedy of ill manners as all-out morality play -- or so you'd think from the advance press. But the director's huge European hit, last year's highest-grossing film in France (it almost beat out Titanic), is no LaBute-ian fish pond, stocked to be ruthlessly speared. This, even though the film's French title, Le Diner de Cons, roughly translates to Dinner of Jerks.
Indeed, Veber's film actually skips the vicious meal of its title -- a Wednesday-night affair during which educated, moneyed adult men with glamorous jobs each bring the most boring, stupid, pathetic, individual they can find to be laughed at, without the guest's knowledge. Instead, it focuses on one evening in the life of amoral, adulterous publisher Pierre (Thierry Lhermitte) as his life is unintentionally plundered by François (Jacques Villeret), a rotund tax man unknowingly chosen as Pierre's idiot and determined to be his savior. While the idiots' dinner is taking place across Paris, Pierre is stranded in his lavish apartment with a bad back and François, who attempts to nurse him and help him locate his wife, Christine (Alexandra Vandernoot), who deserted Pierre because of his callousness and philandering.
And so what we have is dessert without coffee, lots of sweet-and-savory shenanigans by François without the caffeinated spike that watching him being roundly humiliated beforehand would have provided. Francis Veber has a big, gooey heart, even when he's subjecting one poor dolt to numerous assassination attempts (as in his first big hit, 1972's The Tall Blonde Man With One Black Shoe). He doesn't lace his characterizations with venom so much as drop it in with an eyedropper during one scene, then dilute it with more teaspoons of sugar in another. Early on, The Dinner Game even finds wicked Pierre making up with best friend Just (Francis Huster), whose girlfriend Pierre had stolen and made his wife; this way, the two men can spend the film as pals, sidekicks.
Poor nervous, well-meaning François is the pawn who can't make sense of Pierre and Just's hectoring instructions. He, too, needs his second half, who arrives in the form of his friend and fellow tax auditor Cheval (Daniel Prevost), who has the address of the alleged love nest where Christine might be languishing in bitterness. But soon enough, Cheval couldn't care less about the woman; he's far more interested in Pierre's undeclared pieces of artwork than in helping him recover his betrayed wife.
Between snowballing disasters, François stands on the sidelines, wringing his hands. As François, Jacques Villeret looks like an Al Hirschfeld drawing of some legendary silent film-era comic made flesh. With his bulging eyes, gleaming pate spouting clown-bristle hair from either side, and delightful obliviousness, he is far and away the reason to see The Dinner Game. He reminds you a bit of a subtler Zero Mostel; he handles pathos in a way Mostel never could. And his best foil in the film is not the blue-eyed, blandly handsome Thierry Lhermitte as the exasperated Pierre, but Daniel Prevost as leering, suspicious tax investigator Cheval, whose hawk nose can locate paintings in the closet as easily as vinegar added to coarsen expensive dinner wine.
The Dinner Game is a perfectly entertaining little French comedy that doesn't quite lodge in your brain in the way you hope it would. For a critic to complain that a film comedy isn't mean-spirited enough may lead you to presume that he has a limitless appetite for LaBute's nasty-nasty overkill. Not true: French comic movies have an enduring history of ripping the knickers off of everyone at the dinner table and paddling them in front of the other guests. I just wanted to see Veber turn a few more Gallic bottoms a deeper shade of red.
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