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Weekly Alibi French Cooking

By Devin D. O'Leary

SEPTEMBER 27, 1999:  In a recent television interview, Robin Williams quashed persistent rumors that he would be starring in an American version of the hit French comedy The Dinner Game (Le Diner de Cons). Williams had seen neither hide nor hair of an American script and added (only half-jokingly), "If I remake another French comedy, they're going to take my license away." Still, Hollywood, and the entertainment community in general, can be forgiven for jumping the gun a little -- considering the film in question.

The film in question, The Dinner Game, is the latest writing/directing work of Francis Veber. Though the name may not ring many bells with American audiences, his work is a familiar sight. In 1971, Veber wrote The Tall Blonde Man With One Black Shoe (remade as The Man With One Red Shoe starring Tom Hanks). In 1973, he adapted his own play L'emmerdeur for the big screen. (It was remade as Buddy, Buddy with Jack Lemon and Walter Matthau.) In 1978, Veber penned the worldwide smash La Cage Aux Folles (eventually remade as The Birdcage, featuring the above-mentioned Robin Williams). Le Jouet was remade as The Toy with Richard Pryor. Hold-Up became the Bill Murray comedy Quick Change. La Chévre became Pure Luck with Danny Glover and Martin Short. Les Fugitifs became Three Fugitives with Nick Nolte and Martin Short. Le Jaguar became Out on a Limb with Matthew Broderick. Les Compéres became Father's Day (Williams again). Does anyone sense a trend here?

Like nearly all his previous works, Veber's newest screen gem spotlights a farcical situation and a preposterous coupling of personalities. Pierre Brochant (Thierry Lhermitte) is a rich, ostensibly spoiled book publisher who, along with his country club pals, engages in a cruel weekly game. Each member of this obnoxious yuppie circle is supposed to locate a "guest" to bring with them to dinner. The one who manages to secure the most idiotic guest wins the game. Pierre believes he has found himself a "ringer" in lumpy tax accountant Francois Pignon (Jacques Villeret), whose preoccupation with building matchstick models borders on the obsessive.

Unfortunately, before the fateful dinner game can begin, Pierre injures his back and is unable to attend. Unaware of the complication (or his role as human punchline), Francois arrives at Pierre's well-appointed apartment for their dinner date. Determined to help his new "friend," Francois insists on making Pierre comfortable and, over the course of one disastrous evening, manages to insinuate himself into the hapless yuppie's life. In addition to his thrown-out back, Pierre is in the midst of a crisis -- inspired in part by his insistence on continuing the cruel dinner game, Pierre's wife Christine (Alexandra Vandernoot) has just walked out on him. Francois decides to play matchmaker and soon proves himself a prime idiot by tearing Pierre's life apart. Pierre does his best to rid himself of this human bull in a china shop, but to little avail.

Well-meaning and not quite as moronic as he seems, Francois tries his best to help track down Christine, who -- it seems -- may have fallen into the arms of another man. The irony, of course, is that Pierre's only hope lies in a man he has chosen for his stupidity. Despite (or, perhaps, because of) an unending stream of bumbling catastrophes, Pierre's self-centered life is shaken up and somehow reordered.

Originally conceived as a hit stage play, The Dinner Game unfolds with only a handful of characters and a single basic setting. Though the story still feels very much like a play, its claustrophobic nature only enhances the hellish predicament of its characters. Pierre and Francois are trapped together by circumstance, and the results are often hilarious. Occasionally, what the French find funny seems grotesque and mean-spirited when lifted from its native soil. The Dinner Game manages to take what could be a particularly mean circumstance and find the comic spark in it all. As Francois, Jacques Villeret never comes across as too stupid; he's merely a bumbling loser with the best of intentions but the worst of results. Thierry Lhermitte, meanwhile, is careful to never come across as too evil; Pierre is merely a misguided snob whose insulated rich boy life has made him forget his essential humanity. One particularly telling scene is when Pierre confesses to being a horrible, selfish pig. The confession rings hollow, and we know in that instant that Pierre is perfectly ripe for the redeeming.

In the end, the dual redemptions of Pierre and Francois are carried off with a minimum of schmaltz -- a fact that is sure to change once Billy Crystal and Danny DeVito get ahold of this thing and turn it into Hollywood's latest "laugh 'til you cry" fest. For the second time in two weeks, you have been warned.

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