The Dinner Game
(Le Diner de cons)

directed by Francis Veber
(Lion's Gate, 1998)

The great question in The Dinner Game comes down to one thing: What makes an idiot? A group of dinner-party friends in France is pretty sure they have the formula all worked out.

Every week, each member of the circle invites his own idiot to the meal -- and he who invites the biggest idiot gets a prize at the evening's end. Francis Veber's 1998 film, released in France as Le Diner de cons, takes this basic plot line and runs with it. But where it runs is what gives The Dinner Game its perfectly French sense of humor.

It basically runs in circles around the chic apartment of Pierre Brochant, a successful businessman who invites his unsuspecting idiot, Francois Pignon, to have a drink at home first before heading to the formal dinner. Pignon's competition will be a gentleman who's obsessed with "the primitive boomerang of the proud Aborigine warriors." But Pignon, a tax investigator, has nothing to worry about. His talent is creating architectural marvels out of matchsticks -- his Eiffel Tower uses "346,422, to be exact." Pignon is a world-class idiot, Pierre tells his wife, Christine. She's appalled by the whole smug idea of the event and leaves for an evening out on her own. The dashing Pierre wrenches his back in a mishap and then Pignon arrives. There's no way they can attend the dinner that night, Pierre apologizes, and they'll have to get together another week.

Then, Christine calls: "I'm leaving you. I won't be home tonight." That's usually a signal for everyone else in the house besides the husband to get out. But Pignon is not to be gotten rid of that easily. Played as a well-meaning buffoon by Jacques Villeret, Pignon is that sad clown whose obsessions are driven by melancholy. He must help Pierre, he says, and offers to get him to bed. Within the next hour, Pignon will answer the phone and, unwittingly, invite Pierre's mistress Marlene to stop by. He will then turn away a repentant Christine at the door, thinking she's Marlene. He will fill in Pierre's former rival for Christine on the night's turn of events. And when Pierre is desperate to find out the address of a man who's been pursuing Christine, Pignon puts in a call to a colleague who's the greatest tax investigator of them all. This man, if anyone, can ferret out the love nest address and bring it to Pierre. And this man, of course, will sniff out the tax evasions galore in Pierre's antiques- and artwork-laden home.

The Dinner Game feels more like a play, with the rapid dialogue and pacing suited to the stage. There's no camerawork to speak of, no trips out, just several large rooms and two men, one of whom is slowly growing crazy. French star Thierry Lhermitte plays Pierre as a vain man whose sense of superiority is shaken only once -- when Pignon talks to Christine on the telephone, trying to convince her of her husband's love. But it's the rather homely, bumbling Villeret, as the "idiot," who's the infuriating heart and soul of the film. As he pushes Pierre, again and again, into a corner of indignant rage, it's a joy to watch (and you can thank God he's not at your own house).

When Hollywood makes its own version, they'll surely put someone like Jim Carrey in the role -- and it'll be all wrong.

[ by Jen Kopf ]

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