We all know the dirty little truth about stereotypes is that they usually have some basis in reality. A minor basis to be sure and they’re most often incorrectly applied as generalizations, but come on people, I’ve ridden in cars driven by Asian females and it is terrifying. One such stereotype that I’ve only heard second hand is about the rudeness of the French. But for all the friends and acquaintances who’ve sworn to its veracity my years of watching French films haven’t born it out to be true. (Because cinema represents reality obviously.) Until now. It’s rare to find a movie that dares to make one of its two leads a complete and total prick, but The Dinner Game does just that. And the fact that for all of his arsehole-ishness the guy still manages to be likable? A feat only those well-versed in rudeness could accomplish.
Every Wednesday a gaggle of dicks invite one guest each to a very special dinner. The invitees are chosen based on a simple criteria… how stupid they look and act. The friends basically spend the evening letting their guests make fools of themselves and compete to see whose idiot is the most entertaining. Pierre Brochant thinks he hit the mother-load when he comes across a man named Francois Pignon. He makes matchstick models of bridges and other man-made objects and as an added bonus he’s short, balding, and desperate to please others. Ideal idiot material. Brochant is giddy at the thought of bringing Pignon to the party, but he hurts his back and has to cancel. Pignon shows up for a meet and greet and he’s immediately turned away… except Pignon won’t be leaving anytime soon. Instead, he makes himself a pleasant and utterly oblivious arbiter of Brochant’s fate, and the real dinner game begins.
The Dinner Game is a wicked and very funny comedy of manners and class that bravely puts forth two highly unconventional lead characters and somehow manages to make us care about them both. Pignon (Jacques Villeret) is a dolt, well-meaning to be sure, but still someone who if you met him in real life you’d most assuredly shake your head and move away. He’s the heart of the film as a victim at first but as a person second. And unlike his counterpart in a certain US remake opening this weekend he stays within the bounds of reality instead of crossing the line into ridiculously unbelievable behavior. Brochant (Thierry Lhermitte) is a rare creation in that he’s an unapologetically nasty and rude piece of merde. (Can “merde” even be used as a noun?) He’s not simply a good guy who does something mean (again, like his remake counterpart); he’s a dick, period. This is part of what makes the resulting fallout from Pignon’s actions so deserved and entertaining.
Villeret walks a fine line between caricature and sentimentality with his performance as the unaware idiot, and he manages it beautifully because he refuses to go too far in either direction. His eyes reveal brief flashes of inner pains that are slowly revealed but never left to dwell on, and it’s more than enough for us to fully get his character’s motivations and behaviors. Lhermitte is equally impressive as the character designed to be hated by the viewer. He’s despicable, no doubt, but he’s also legitimately funny and occasionally nears the point of revealing his humanity before quickly withdrawing back. The two are in almost every scene together after the fifteen-minute mark, and they work extremely well off of each other. One of the best scenes in the film finds Pignon making a phone-call on behalf of Brochant in an effort to find Brochant’s wife. A simple goal becomes an elaborate scheme as Pignon develops a detailed cover for his call that sees him pretending to be a movie producer interested in a man’s book. He gets so caught up in it that he ends the call with a verbal deal for the book rights and is absolutely joyful in his celebration at their success. Until Brochant’s stone face reminds him that he’s not a producer… and he neglected to ask about Brochant’s wife.
Writer/director Francis Veber does a smart thing here by keeping the film and story fairly simple. Our sympathies are automatically aligned with Pignon based on the situation alone, but the character earns it through his behavior as well. And Veber never has Brochant shy away from his inclination to be a terrible person. The film stays focused on the developing relationship between these two men, for better or worse, and the results are evident. The pace never slags, and while the under eighty minute running time may be part of that, the fast and witty bits of dialogue help in preventing the film from overstaying its welcome.
The inevitable US remake hits theaters this week under the title Dinner For Schmucks, and while that movie is worth a watch (on DVD) for the cast involved The Dinner Game is unquestionably the better film. The remake changes a lot, but it keeps enough of the material to make it preferable to avoid it until you’ve seen the original. Scenes and dialogue exchanges that will have you tearing up with laughter here just fall flat in their Hollywood incarnation. The Dinner Game is a fast-paced piece of smart and biting entertainment that’s just as unafraid to be cruel as it is to show its heart. I won’t go so far as to call you an idiot if you don’t seek this movie out… but it just might make you a schmuck.
Check out more Foreign Objects.
The Upside: Some very funny situations; comedy is natural and stems from dialogue and expressions; brisk pace; sincere heart when necessary; strong comedic acting
The Downside: Under eighty minutes so not a lot of time to flesh out the characters