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The Dinner Game

     There's the France that makes me envious, the mad mad nation of advanced cinephilia, where crowds line up for Iranian movies, where every regular person you meet seems to know intimately the American oeuvre of John Ford and Nicholas Ray and (yes) Jerry Lewis, and being a total film freak is unapologetically normal. There's also, simultaneously, the bourgeois, coiffured France of hack, middle-of-the-road taste, the La Cage aux Folles people, whose choice for a rare night out of cinema is "something very French." Translation: a sub-Neil Simon domestic farce of the Le Sex Shop variety: banal, cliched, drearily conventional.

     The Dinner Game, written and directed by Francis Veber, the actual author of La Cage aux Folles, is the latest, most successful ever, entry of France's so-called "boulevard comedy" genre. It's an amazing-grossing movie which, in 1998, actually rivaled Titanic for French box office; and it could succeed with the more mainstream among the subtitled crowd in the USA. But to this turned-off American, The Dinner Game is so bland and enervating that even a Hugh Grant should stay away.

     Veber's story: a bunch of rich Parisians indulge in base, frat-guy humor by inviting real-life "idiots" to a private supper and then laughing at their unsuspecting, boorish guests. Par example, a visitor obsessed with Australian boomerangs spends the whole evening soliloquizing about aboriginal weaponry while his hosts, feigning deep interest, chortle behind his back. Among the patronizing crew is handsome publisher Pierre Brochant (Thierry Lhermitte, the oft-cast Cary Grant of "boulevard" comedy), who looks high and low for a fabulous "idiot" to impress his pals. The search ends with Francois Pignon (Jacques Villeret), whose specialty is building miniature bridges and Eiffel Towers out of matchsticks and glue. Won't Pignon be willing to come to dinner and talk about his amateur art?

     The Dinner Game began as a Parisian stage play, which then-playwright Veber situated in the publisher's svelte apartment. Seemingly to assure that his comedy could be confined to one set, Veber contrived his plot to have Brochant suddenly throw out his back. With a pulled-out back, Brochant is forced to stay at home and never get to the "idiots" party. Instead, the "idiot," Pignon, comes to him, and causes havoc. Ha! Ha! Ha! Imagine the bull-in-a-china shop comic possibilities of a blundering "idiot" rubbing against a guy with a damaged back. There's a lot of that in the movie, fleshed out with by-the-numbers farce: Pignon mixing up Brochant's estranged wife and ditsy mistress, Pignon accidentally inviting in a tax collector, who looks suspiciously at Brochant's unreported wordly wealth.

     Moliere this isn't, nor Rules of the Game. Blue-eyed Thierry Lhermitte is a lightweight leading-man fixture in France, but he doesn't especially translate. Jacques Villeret is far more a mystery to me as "the idiot," funny looking (think a balding, porcine butcher wrapping up some innards) in lieu of funny. He makes faces and says dumb things on the telephone. Pardonez-moi, I forgot to laugh. I did groan, however, when the narrative wound down, sentimental sitcom style, with the heartrending revelation that "the idiot" isn't really an "idiot," that goofy appearances are deceptive. Pignon's some kind of genius, this Forrest Gump of France.

Boston Phoenix, July, 1999


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