Saturday, September 25, 1999

Saving room for a feast of farce

Movie: The Dinner Game

Posted on Sat, Sep 25, 1999 at 4:00 AM

****
Our Rating: 4.00

A good farce is hard to find, particularly in a long, hot season of popcorn fare that's largely defined by an excess-is-best approach to moviemaking. So it's a pleasure to report that a master of the art -- writer and director Francis Veber -- is back at the top of his form with "The Dinner Game," his 27th film and the second most popular movie to hit French screens last year (bested only by the "Titanic" juggernaut).

It's a deftly constructed, short and bittersweet comedy about a smug, mean-spirited yuppie who intends to make great sport out of showing off a handpicked "A-1 idiot" to his equally amused friends. By the time all is said and done, however, the tables have been turned, and the roles duly reversed.

Commercially successful but not always respected at home, Veber is known to U.S. audiences as the talent responsible for a string of films that were ultimately remade on this side of the pond with lackluster results, including "Father's Day," "The Toy," "Jungle 2 Jungle" and "Pure Luck." His latest work may be headed toward similar sanitization for the sake of American consumption: Steven Spielberg has already purchased the rights to make his own version of "The Dinner Game" for DreamWorks, perhaps as a vehicle for Robin Williams.

It's difficult, though, to imagine anyone inhabiting the role of the buffoonish accountant named Francois quite as effectively as Jacques Villeret, who embodies the dumpy, frumpy Tax Ministry worker as if he were born to play the role. Puffy-faced, balding and tubby, Francois is the sort of fellow who can make partygoers cry and clear a room in a minute, thanks to his propensity for passionate, impromptu discussions (and demonstrations) of his hobby: He uses matches to make elaborate models of the Eiffel Tower and the Concorde, as well as countless other buildings and large objects. The construction of the Eiffel, it's related, required 346,472 sticks, 37 tubes of glue and eight months' worth of work to complete. Just think of it!

Quite unexpectedly, Francois finds himself invited to the well-appointed home of Pierre (Thierry Lhermitte), a wealthy, pretentious and handsome publisher. Pierre has been tipped off to the rumpled, open-faced imbecile's existence by a friend, a man who has somehow survived another of Francois' tales of matchstick wizardry.

Pierre intends to invite the insufferable number-cruncher to be his guest at a dinner party being held nearby. The offer is more sinister than it appears: As is the custom among Pierre and his lot, a prize will be given to the diner who brings the biggest idiot to the gathering. Another of the invitees -- introduced in a slapstick segment -- collects boomerangs.

Alas, Pierre has wrenched his back, and is quickly out of the running for that week's edition of the contest. But so intrigued is he by his guest's feeblemindedness that he agrees to let him stick around for a while.

Bad move. Thanks to his massive incompetence and knack for saying the wrong thing at the right time, Francois proceeds to make a shambles of his new amí's personal life, accidentally alienating both Pierre's mistress and his estranged wife, and inviting a particularly nosy tax inspector (Daniel Prevost) to the apartment. Francois earnestly, honestly wants to help this stranger who pretends to be a friend, but his sheer social ineptitude keeps getting in the way.

Villeret and Lhermitte make a winning comedy team, bringing expert timing to their routines, and Veber does a masterful job of allowing each segment to carefully build into a worthwhile punch line.

Bit by bit, the dummy rearranges the pieces of the smart guy's life. Getting there is pure pleasure, making "The Dinner Game" a comic delight from the first course to the last.

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