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Nashville Scene Snack Food

"The Dinner Game" not filling, but it satisfies your sweet tooth

By Noel Murray

SEPTEMBER 27, 1999:  Francis Veber has been writing and directing comedies in his native France for 30 years now, and he has honed his practice fine. Although his most famous work has been remade badly by Hollywood, often with Veber's help (such duds include The Toy, My Father the Hero, and Three Fugitives), his La Cage Aux Folles did survive the translation into The Birdcage, a picture that nicely framed Veber's aesthetic for American audiences. He loves to introduce the uptight elite either to a vulgar clod or to an outrageous outsider, and then to hear what they talk about for the next hour and a half.

For Veber's latest, The Dinner Game, he's distilled the action mostly to one room and two characters, which may seem a cheat given the film's more expansive premise. The film stars Thierry Lhermitte as Pierre, a self-centered young publishing executive who joins in a weekly joke with his equally arrogant friends--they each bring a boorish guest to a dinner party and spend the evening subtly mocking their "idiots." From the moment this idea is introduced, we in the audience look forward to seeing it play out, to seeing the dullards and their caddish hosts endure each others' company in an evening of escalating comic tension. But we never get to the party. Sorry, folks. Maybe in the sequel (or the upcoming American remake).

Instead, we spend the film in Pierre's apartment, where he's laid up with a wrenched back. Adding insult to his injury, Pierre's wife has just left him, and before he can call off his dinner engagement, his idiot arrives, in the form of schlubby tax inspector and matchstick model-making enthusiast Fran¨ois (played by Jacques Villeret). The well-meaning Fran¨ois attempts to help Pierre save his marriage by making some phone calls on his behalf, but the dim-witted taxman keeps making mistakes that get his aching host into further trouble.

There are some ideological and artistic problems with The Dinner Game that are hard to shake. Besides the abbreviated scope of the scenario, Veber is also far from fearless when it comes to skewering his characters. His Pierre is not quite mean enough; his Fran¨ois is not quite doltish enough. We know Veber wants us to sympathize with the callously treated idiots, but he also wants us to laugh at them, so he withholds some much-needed demonization of their obnoxious sponsors. And Veber rivals American filmmaker John Hughes in the hypocritical way he mocks a slob for 90 minutes and then tries to reveal said slob as a paragon of "common man" virtue in the last 10.

Luckily, as Hughes had John Candy to partially justify his excesses, Veber has Villeret, whose sleepy eyes and eager smile are as ingratiating as the precise timing of his dialogue delivery. Confident in his own inherent humanity, Villeret is unafraid to get laughs by playing the idiot he's supposed to be--when his Fran¨ois starts improvising lies on Pierre's behalf, the delight he shows in his own ill-conceived cleverness is genuinely hilarious.

As usual, a good chuckle goes a long way toward forgiving a film's flaws. For all the tentativeness of its social commentary, The Dinner Game benefits from Veber's experience with pacing and shooting. So many American comedies are so muddy and sloppily edited, it's almost a relief to sit back and enjoy the Frenchman's tastefulness and skill in executing the kind of minor slice-of-life that his country does so well. Even if he doesn't invite enough idiots, Veber still throws a nice party. --Noel Murray


Action figures

The last action movie of the summer. Like the dregs of a bottle of rotgut, it's cheap, not good for you, and could have been a lot better. Yet there's a tinge of nostalgia in its tawdry pleasures, an end to the season of joyous slumming and swigging from the bottle. Time to sit up straight again and dutifully swirl the good stuff around in your glass before delicate sips.

Columbia Pictures long since spent its box office capital on 8MM, so its final taste of summer action is Blue Streak, a buddy movie starring a comedian clawing his way up the movie-star ladder, B-movie by B-movie. Martin Lawrence isn't going to be mistaken for Eddie Murphy or Will Smith anytime in the next three years. And he's paired with Luke Wilson, best known for hits on the indie-quirky axis like Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, and Home Fries. Without stars, Columbia has had to promote the film by affixing the trailer to every single summer release and buying up half the ad banner space on the Web. The movie even has an achingly cheesy attempt at a catchphrase: "Believe that!" A catchphrase! What is this, the mid-'80s?

The surprise is that the whole concoction's not that bad. Maybe it's just nostalgia for car chases past, but it's almost sweet to see Blue Streak trot out the swerving cop cruisers and slow-motion Evel-Knievel stunts. Even more charming, director Les Mayfield cuts away in the middle of a shot of an airborne car to show its occupants screaming--clearly safe on the ground, since a bridge railing is visible through their windows. Then back to the flying car, then to the occupants pretending to bounce painfully as their car lands. In the final scene, Wilson reveals knowledge that we never saw him acquire, pointing unmistakably to key plot points left on the cutting-room floor.

It's almost conceivable that Mayfield and his crew have decided to dispense with continuity and story arcs since they realize the ridiculousness of it all. The resulting freedom, whether born of ignorance, irony, or simple neglect, lends a certain heady air of abandon to the proceedings. Lawrence can't be accused of uplifting the race with his bug-eyed, step-and-fetch-it shenanigans, but at least he never lets up. And Wilson, as a white-bread, straight-arrow detective just off traffic detail, gives his role an earnest dignity that plays far funnier than the usual dumb-cop antics. Mayfield, the director of the pre-show reel for Back to the Future: The Ride, knows how to move people in and out of the theater without giving them time to think.

If Blue Streak makes no lasting impression, at least it hasn't done any damage to your liver. In a welcome break from recent tradition, there isn't even any bathroom or bedroom humor (if you don't count the semi-joke of having Lawrence search for his misplaced diamond in the ladies' room). The movie can do no damage to Lawrence's reputation, and it might enhance Wilson's. And compared to the corrosive acid waiting to be poured into your brain in other theaters, it's practically a Shirley Temple--well, maybe Boone's Farm. --Donna Bowman


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