Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Dinner Game


Now that I have completed filming on Goodfollies, I have had a little more time on my hands and have been able to turn my attention to some other areas of my life. It's been some time now since poor Norman washed out to sea and I'm starting to think there should be a special someone with whom I can share the life of a glamorous Hollywood leading lady. When you're in the public eye, as I am, it takes a special sort of man to withstand the fearful glare of publicity and the paparazzi, so dating can be a bit challenging. We celebrities usually pair with other celebrities as they are folk who understand the rules of the fame game - besides they usually have invitations to the same events.

I telephoned Madame Rose, my publicist, about my plans to begin dating again. She was absolutely thrilled and thinks that it could be a brilliant career move, citing the examples of Julia Roberts, Jennifer Lopez and Lisa Marie Presley. All of them have seen marked spikes in their Q ratings when they begin seeing a new gentleman. I asked her where I might be able to find a suitable star companion (and I absolutely refuse to do The New Celebrity Dating Game) - she said she'd have to get back to me on that but that she'd make a few calls to ICM, CAA and Pat Kingsley who's always trying to pair up her clients with dazzling women.

Satisfied that I would soon have a Brad Pitt or a Hugh Jackman to squire me to fabulous dinner parties, I retired to the home theater where I looked for a film about socializing to put me in the mood for dining out. In my 'to view' pile, I found Francis Veber's 1998 French film, Le Diner de Cons or The Dinner Game in which dinner parties are a major theme and so I popped it into the DVD player for a viewing.

The Dinner Game takes place in modern Paris. (We know this as the Eiffel Tower makes a cameo appearance outside the window of the central set.) Pierre Brochant (Thierry L'hermitte) lives in this gorgeous apartment with his wife Christine (Alexandra Vandernoot). Pierre is rich, arrogant, a publisher, and not a particularly nice man. He has a batch of equally appalling friends who have invented a new game to amuse themselves. Once a month, this group gathers for a dinner party and each member brings a guest - a prize goes to the one who brings the biggest idiot. The snooty Pierre and his friends then spend the meal making fun of their guests, who are usually too thick to cotton on to what's going on.

For this month's party, Pierre has found a man he believes to be a world class moron, Francois Pignon (Jacques Villeret), a minor functionary in the central tax office who amuses himself by creating replicas of great engineering feats with matchsticks. Unfortunately, just before the party is to begin, Pierre throws his back out and cannot easily move. Christine, tired of his arrogance and his ideas of fun, walks out and Pierre is more or less left with M. Pignon who proceeds, quite unintentionally, to completely cock up Pierre's life with his stupidity. Soon all the elements of farce wind up - doors slam, there's mistaken identities, a tax inspector calls, Pierre's mistress (Catherine Frot) becomes suicidal - the only thing that's missing is someone trying to dispose of a naked corpse. Everything races toward a denouement which asks which of the unlikely pair is actually the idiot - the good hearted, if dull witted Pignon or the terminally unhappy, arrogant, intellectual Pierre.

Writer-director Veber has been making this sort of film in France for thirty years and has his formula for film farce down to a science. No matter how loopy the plots and action, the films are always character driven and peopled by talented actors. Most of his films have been quite successful and released in the US on the art house circuit. Many have even been remade by Hollywood, often less successfully than the originals as the studios tend to try and replace character with star persona and character interaction with action set pieces. Previous Veber films include The Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe (Remade as The Man with One Red Shoe with Tom Hanks), La Cage Aux Folles (Remade as The Birdcage with Robin Williams), Le Chevre (Remade as Pure Luck with Martin Short), and Les Comperes (Remade as Father's Day with Billy Crystal).

The Dinner Game is no exception to his usual rules. Most of the action takes place in Pierre's apartment and moves along like a Gallic stage farce in the Feydeau tradition. There are a few scenes elsewhere, mainly to bolster what happens between Pierre and Pignon. The conceits of the film are such that the humor and motion must all come from these two characters - their relationship is the central support around which the farce revolves. Fortunately, Veber shows his usual smart casting. As Pierre, L'hermitte is smooth eloquence, angular cheek bones and high style. Villeret's Pignon is soft and doughy, full of little nervous tics and vocal mannerisms that stop just sort of grating. If it were pushed too far, we'd lose sympathy for him and the film would not work.

While I found much of The Dinner Game to be formula and predictable, it still boasts two assured performances in the leads, a decent supporting cast and that fine balance between giggles and cringes that makes good farce work. The film is in French with English subtitles. Tax the brain and read the titles rather than trying to find a dubbed copy; half the fun is in how the actors' inflections and body language match up in absurd situations.

The DVD release available from Netflix contains the film, the theatrical trailer and no other extras.

Eiffel Tower made of matchsticks. Real Eiffel Tower. Large dogs in small car. Paris/Marseilles football match. Lecherous businessman. Unexpected traffic accident. Multiple phone calls. Hidden artwork. Omelet cooking.

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