Guess who is coming to dinner?
The Dinner Game, also known by its French name Le Dîner de cons is a French import comedy from writer/director Francis Veber, who has had two other of his works remade into American films. One of the two, Father's Day, did not fare too well, but the other, The Birdcage, was quite a hit. The word is that this film also has a remake in the works, starring Robin Williams. I can't predict its success, but can say that the French version of the film is somewhat charming and occasionally funny, though has a few problems. Although a barebones disc, Universal has given it a beautiful anamorphic transfer. Except for one quibble with the disc, it too has its charm.
The lead in this film is Pierre Brochant, played by Thierry Lhermitte, a busy French actor best known here for An American Werewolf in Paris. Brochant is a publisher, and he and his friends have a decidedly mean-spirited pastime: a weekly "idiot dinner" where each tries to outdo the other by inviting the biggest idiot they can find, and making fun of them behind their backs. Bragging rights go to the person finding the biggest idiot. Brochant feels he has a real winner when he comes across Francois Pignon, played by Jacques Villaret. Pignon makes intricate models of architectural landmarks out of matchsticks, and is unceasingly willing to tell anyone all about them.
Under the guise of having Pignon show off his photos of his model collection, Brochant invites him to the idiot dinner. But when Brochant injures his back, he is unable to attend, and is stuck with his idiot for the evening. Brochant is not having a good day; he gets a message from his wife saying she is leaving him as Pignon looks on. Pathetically desperate to help him out, Pignon decides to stay and assist. Here is the thrust of this ostensibly madcap comedy; as everything Pignon does to help makes things worse. Thinking he is turning Brochant's mistress away, he manages to tell the wife, who had a change of heart and was returning, about the mistress and make her leave again. His efforts to rectify that mistake all backfire too, until Brochant finds himself facing a tax audit that will surely claim a lot of possessions and the total breakup of his social and romantic life.
The funny moments come as Brochant goes ever deeper into the hole, yet has to depend on his idiot Pignon to try to make things better. But the true charm of the movie comes from Villaret, who's well meaning and sad attempts to help a man who surely doesn't deserve it is endearing in a way. In the end, Pignon teaches Brochard a thing or two as well, although they are probably not lessons he wanted to learn. The movie alternated between being a bit tedious, becoming more charming, and sometimes funny throughout. So while it's not a wholly successful effort (it was quite a hit in France, so for that audience it was a success), it has its moments and quiet charm.
Universal doesn't give the disc the same carte blanche treatment (I think I have French on the brain right now, excuse me) it gives its day-and-date releases, but continues to give a viewing to people of films they might not otherwise have been exposed to. One area Universal does not disappoint though is in the transfer. I was a bit surprised such a film used a 2.35:1 aspect ratio (usually such a comedy would use 1.85:1) but the anamorphic widescreen transfer is beautiful. I detected only one flaw, a bit of motion artifacting, but very little. The film print used was very clean. Colors and detail were off the charts, and for a film that doesn't exactly do much or go anywhere is near reference quality.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I have an issue or two with the film itself, and one with the disc. The film was originally written for the stage, and keeps that feel after adaptation to cinema. Almost the entire movie takes place in Brochard's apartment or just outside it, and only a few scenes show any use of the advantages film has over live theater. The other problem I have with the film, and its biggest drawback, is that it's so hard to care. Brochard is a two timing, mean spirited jerk, and while seeing him get screwed has a bit of pleasure, the film tries and fails to make you care about him. Likewise Pignon really is something of an idiot, though a well meaning one and while I did have sympathy for him it was also hard to care. So I have a qualified like of the film, but would have had greater enjoyment had I been able to care more about the main characters.
One complaint with the disc, but it's a doozy. The only language and subtitle options are the French Dolby Surround track with English subtitles. That doesn't sound so bad until you realize it is truly the only option; the subtitles are burned into the film print. So French speakers are stuck with the subtitles, and English speakers who would rather have had a subtitle option (and words that appeared below the picture instead of on it) have no choice either. The French track is clear and even my one year of college French was able to understand a fair amount of the dialogue. Any dialogue I didn't understand was my own fault rather than that of the transfer. There is only the theatrical trailer for an extra; but I'm not complaining for an import film that doesn't have much of a built-in audience. In this case I'm happier they gave us an option to see the film at all on DVD rather than unhappy there isn't a ton of extras.
The more I watched the film, the better I liked it. The first half I was still very wary and expecting to hate it, but I was won over somewhat by the endearing qualities of the "idiot." Foreign film fans will likely enjoy it even more than I did; while I can be fair to almost anything I confess to not being a big aficionado of French film. The film is well made and the performances were strong, I just had my own problems with the characters themselves. I will say one thing; this film will make you have second thoughts before passing judgment on someone for being different or seeming less smart than yourself. Still, if I have to give my purchase recommendation I'd have to say try a rental first, as it is certainly not a film for everybody. If you like French comedy, and are only worried about the quality of the disc, I'd recommend purchase.
All involved with the film and the disc are acquitted. I look forward to seeing what a remake for American film will do, and have to wonder which role Robin Williams will play; the idiot or the jerk?
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