Remakes For Schmucks: Two Versions of “The Dinner Game”

Posted: March 9, 2011 in Comedy, French, Remake
Tags: , , , , , , ,

We agree that half the people at the party are idiots. But which half?

A new height in “explaining the premise.”

 

“I Have Laid Eggs Inside Your Brain.”

First Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

The Dinner Game, originally released in France as Le Diner de Cons, literal translation The Dinner Of Cunts (1998). Directed by Francis Veber. Screenplay by Francis Veber, from his play. Starring Jacques Villeret, Thierry Lhermitte, Francis Huster, and Alexandra Vandermoot. 87 minutes. ** 1/2

Dinner For Schmucks (2010). Directed by Jay Roach. Screenplay by David Guion and Michael Handelman, from the French original by Francis Veber. Starring Steve Carell, Paul Rudd, Bruce Greenwood, Zach Galifianakis. 114 minutes. ** 1/2.

Other Known Versions: Unseen by us, the Hindi Film Bheja Fry (2007); the Malayam film April Fool (2010); the Kannada film Mr. Garagasa (2008). Veber’s play has also been translated and produced in China.

*

There’s a bunch of well-to-do guys. They are privileged and they are arrogant and they consider themselves Masters of the Universe. For fun they get together for dinner parties centered around a cruel game: the feting of people far below their station, whose sole sin is their personal enthusiasm for some endeavor these well-to-do guys consider beneath them, an endeavor that the presumed guests of honor can be invited to defend at length while their hosts secretly laugh at them. The “idiots,” as they are called by the men who throw this party, never learn that its sole purpose is mockery.

Our protagonist is one of the men in on the joke, who finds himself a grade-a, first-class shmuck to parade about: a fundamentally sweet man who is otherwise so socially clueless and so emotionally invested in the absurd hobby that takes up all his spare time that he will certainly be the hit of the party. Unfortunately, our “hero” makes the mistake of allowing this guy to meet him beforehand, at his home…and not just on any random day, but on the day when the love of our protagonist’s life gets so fed up with his heartlessness that she’s stormed out in a huff.

Worse, the dim guest is so grateful to be invited to the party that he resolves to do whatever he can to “help” his suffering host…and winds up making matters worse, reducing the man’s life to an utter shambles in record time.

This is the premise of a minor international phenomenon, spawned by a French play and remade multiple times around the world. Most people will only be familiar with the most famous of the adaptations, which stars a sitcom star who rose to fame playing a different kind of socially clueless cretin on the American version of The Office (which is itself a remake).

We don’t make the argument that any of them are great movies. Of the two we’ve seen, The Dinner Game is consistently funny but stage-bound, and doesn’t so much reach a recognizable conclusion as flash to a freeze-frame just as the madness starts all over again; while Dinner for Shmucks is so desperately over-the-top that for much of its length that it often buries the comedy, just barely achieving a checkmark in the Win column only through the performances of its leads and the late appearance of genuine inspiration at the titular event. But it’s instructive to examine exactly how the two versions under discussion today differ and how, despite substantial similarities,  they wind up occupying entirely different moral and narrative universes.

The Dinner Game (1998)

The protagonist of the French original is Francois Pignon (Villeret), a wealthy publisher very much invested in his vile “game,” who jumps at the chance to invite one Pierre Brochant (Lermitte), a tax worker infatuated with building matchstick sculptures of world monuments.

Brochant is a fascinating comic creation. Small, lumpy, with frizzy male-pattern baldness that make him look a little like a gnomish Chia-pet, he is a desperately lonely fellow abandoned by his wife who has subsequently found the one thing he is good at. Like many one-trick ponies, he is a bore on the subject, and delights in the opportunity to regale others with recitations of just how many matchsticks he used to build his Eiffel Tower or Golden Gate Bridge. A little child-like smile appears on his face when he accidentally-on-purpose drops one of the photographs he has taken of his work in the lap of a fellow commuter, and is thus afforded the chance to box a total stranger’s ears off with an unwanted discourse on his work. He is a true innocent, a man incapable of guile, whose subsequent efforts to “help” Pignon with improvised lies constantly fall victim to his inability to remember exactly why he adopted those lies in the first place.

Brochant means well when he invites Pignon’s old girlfriend over, and when he subsequently mistakes Pignon’s wife for her and sends her storming off in renewed fury by telling her that the affair must end; and he’s certainly not entirely responsible for the further disasters that ensue when an increasingly desperate Pignon goes along with inviting over another tax-assessor who just might know the address of the secret love nest belonging to the local rake with whom Pignon’s wife might have sought refuge. He has a knack for exposing all subterfuge at the worst possible moment, multiplying the complications for Pignon, who needs his complacency shattered in any event.

Still, he’s a relatively low-wattage source of outright idiocy, compared to the heights of insanity to be found in the Carell film. So is the only other “idiot” we get to see in any real detail, a fellow whose passion is collecting and throwing boomerangs. It is (by design) possible to watch this film and feel real contempt for the throwers of the party, and the absolutely unforgiveable disdain they harbor for people who simply have interests different than their own. (And it’s not just because I’ve been a boomerang fancier as well, though I haven’t collected any or thrown mine in years; after all, I’m also a science fiction writer, who has from time to time had to deal with dullards who think it the height of wit to ask me, always with a look of unearned superiority, where I keep my Spock ears. Ha-ha, that’s really funny, nobody ever said that before. And seriously, fuck you.)

Pignon is very different from the version of him Paul Rudd plays in Dinner for Schmucks. Unlike Rudd’s character, he’s not a nice man. He deeply loves the idiot dinners and has been attending them for years, despite his wife’s revulsion for their cruelty. We also learn that he wooed the woman he’s so desperate to keep from his erstwhile best friend, Just Leblanc (Francis Huster), a man who he has been estranged from ever since, and who turns out to still harbor substantial friendship for him despite the damage done. The crazy girlfriend Brochant invites over may not be an ex, but Pignon’s actual current mistress. He deserves everything that happens to him…and when he is finally moved to call himself an idiot, after watching the entire house of cards he has built fall apart as much due to his own dishonesty as Brochant’s force-of-nature interference, it has the weight of a personal epiphany. 

Leblanc, who despite the weight of the hurt his friend has done him still shows up to help, is a marvelous subsidiary character. Not only does he give the story added heart, but he also makes the chaos sowed by Brochant much funnier, by his constant silent eruptions of schadenfreude-laden laughter. He’s glad to have his friend back. He doesn’t want anything bad to happen to the guy. He actually does want to help. But can anybody blame him for so deeply enjoying the spectacle of the man who hurt him so much, suffering so much tsuris from the interference of a helpful idiot?

The stage-bound story offers only a glimpse of the dinner party, at the opposite end of a phone call; it indeed only briefly leaves Pignon’s apartment. It ends with Brochant, who has by now learned why he was invited in the first place, picking up the phone, speaking from the heart to Pignon’s estranged wife and almost fixing Pignon’s marital woes. It ends with a freeze-frame just as another break sends Pignon’s life spiraling into chaos again. Still, by that time, Pignon has taken a step toward becoming a better person.

Even so – and this is a huge “even so” – it would take an extreme act of audience generosity to interpret the brief interval of apology on Pignon’s part as evidence that the two are destined to become friends. The class divisions between them remain in place. Whether Pignon’s marriage gets patched together or not, whether he applies the lesson he has learned or not, he will ultimately manage to get Brochant out of his life and never, ever invite him back.

This is not the direction taken by Dinner For Schmucks. 

Dinner For Schmucks (2010)

Translate the Yiddish term that has entered English usage and the French Dinner Of Cunts becomes the American Dinner of Dicks, which has the nice effect of turning the title around on itself and referencing not the dinner guests, but the party throwers.

This is only appropriate in that the very first move the American version makes is softening its protagonist, who here becomes Timothy Conrad (Paul Rudd), a rising young executive desperate to ascend to the top level of management, who has finally impressed the evil boss Lance Fender (Bruce Greenwood) only to find out that participation in the board’s occasional feting of idiots a requirement for advancement in the corporate culture. Unlike Pignon, a rotten guy who might be induced to become a better one, Conrad is a decent guy repelled by the premise of the party – he calls it “messed up” – but his ambition makes him temporarily lose himself, especially when he happens to, literally, run into  one Barry Speck (Steve Carell), whose eccentricity is extreme enough to make him a hit at the party.

Barry’s hobby is taxidermy. He searches for dead mice, mostly road-kill, then stuffs them, dresses them like people, and arranges them in wildly elaborate scenic dioramas that define the borderland between absolutely fetching and genuinely creepy. The set-piece is a bucolic study of young lovers at play in the countryside, complete with one pair meeting in a gazebo, another pair boating, others strolling or playing, and all, pretty much, illustrating a dream of peace and company that we rapidly come to understand Speck has lost. It is downright beautiful, in a way that may qualify as genius.

Balancing that, Barry is far more aggressively stupid than Brochant, to the point of seeming borderline dysfunctional, but like Brochant there is nothing vicious in him, nothing but insistent and destructive helpfulness as he shows up at Conrad’s apartment a day early and rapidly dismantles his poor host’s life.

The next hour or so pretty much echoes the events of The Dinner Game, complete with painful back injury, a much-beloved woman storming away from her man in disgust, and the use of tax records to find the love nest where Conrad’s missing girlfriend might be. It is all, however, played at a level far more elaborate, and crazier, than anything that happens in The Dinner Game.  This is for much of its running time not particularly a compliment. The makers didn’t trust the Barry/Timothy interplay to be funny enough, and populated the film with such a broad variety of grotesques that it seems odd for Conrad to have expressed so much dismay at the mere prospect of even finding a good idiot, when the world he inhabits is so overpopulated with them that he should merely have to reach out for the nearest person at random.

Thus, it is not enough for Barry to be clueless; he must be such an idiot that he rarely speaks a sentence without exposing his stupidity. It is not enough there to be another woman, who Barry can mistake for Conrad’s girlfriend and vice-versa at the moments when each misunderstanding will cause the greatest possible damage; she must be a shrill, psychotic stalker, who runs violently amuck when she doesn’t get her way. It isn’t enough for Barry to have a colleague at the tax bureau who causes trouble; that colleague must be a megalomaniac who has long tormented Barry (by among other things taking his wife and controlling him “with the power of (his) mind.”) It isn’t enough for Barry to wreck Conrad’s life; he must also wreck Conrad’s belongings. 

(I would almost include the character of Kieran (Jermaine Clement), the pretentious artist Conrad’s art-gallery girlfriend does business with, as one of the problems, but I actually find him a delightful comic creation, who is simply too much for this overstuffed movie. Kieran’s artwork consists of tributes to his own allegedly seething sexuality, and his conversation includes deep questions like “Have you ever lived among a herd of goats, for months at a time, as one of them?” and blather like,  “Sometimes I’ll be working on a piece, and I’ll think, “No, this is bullshit.” So I will literally rub bull excrement on the piece as a metaphor.” Kieran is hilarious. And the screenplay actually gives him a moment where he sadly recognizes his own absurdity, a sad moment of self-awareness where he labels himself a goat in the act of self-cannibalism. Charlie Sheen could use that kind of self-awareness.)

The movie is exhausting and only fitfully funny for most of its length, often descending to that point no-longer funny that is reached by many sitcoms (including, at times, Carell’s The Office) where we simply feel embarrassed for the characters. Then it gets to the titular dinner, as the original does not. At this point the anarchic nature of the enterprise takes over, and the comedy suddenly takes off.

I won’t cover the craziness in any real detail, except to note the chief difference that most makes the earlier parts of the film worth sitting through. When Barry presents a parade of elaborate dead-mouse dioramas to the assembled smirking zillionaires, his pretentious descriptions of his work awash with malaprops and terribly, terribly misunderstood summaries of the depicted historical events, we get, among all the reaction shots of Greenwood and others barely able to contain their mirth…

…close-ups of Conrad…

…who has come to feel for this lonely man…

…and who is against all odds, against all his expectations, and against all his will…

…charmed by what he sees.

Conrad gets it. And that’s a moment of personal epiphany far greater than the passing remorse his equivalent shows in The Dinner Game.

When, a couple of scenes later, Conrad prepares Barry to confront his “mind-controlling” IRS nemesis by telling him, you’re a telepath yourself, you’ve moved into my mind and taken up permanent residence there,  it’s an unlikely, but still effecting, emotional payoff that in context feels perfectly real. It is Paul Rudd, not Steve Carell, who has the responsibility of selling this, but he manages the trick, and it feels entirely earned.

There’s more insane havoc to follow, not to mention the scene wrapping up Conrad’s troubles with his girlfriend. But we have already passed the true emotional climax.

Unlike Brochant, Barry will be coming to dinner with Conrad again, this time as a friend.

The After-Dinner Mint

The Dinner Game, a stage-bound French farce that steadily builds in hilarity, but fails to provide a satisfactory ending. Dinner For Schmucks, an often-frustrating film that takes a long time to deliver the goods, but ultimately does.

*

My wife, who wouldn’t throw such a dinner or be invited to one, hereby offers her two cents from a nearby diner.

Second Commentary by Judi B. Castro

The Dinner Game aka Le Diner de Cons, literal translation The Dinner Of Cunts (1998). Directed by Francis Veber. Screenplay by Francis Veber, from his play. Starring Jacques Villeret, Thierry Lhermitte, Francis Huster, and Alexandra Vandermoot. 87 minutes. *

Dinner For Schmucks (2010). Directed by Jay Roach. Screenplay by David Guion and Michael Handelman, from the French original by Francis Veber. Starring Steve Carell, Paul Rudd, Bruce Greenwood, Zach Galifianakis. 114 minutes. *

Other Known Versions: Unseen by us, the Hindi Film Bheja Fry (2007); the Malayam film April Fool (2010); the Kannada film Mr. Garagasa (2008). Veber’s play has also been translated and produced in China.   

I objected to Dinner for Schmucks from the first time I heard the title.  My parents had drilled it into me from childhood that one of those words (and it must be stated here that it is not dinner as my round, youthful figure can prove) was VERY BAD!!! and should never, ever be used under any circumstances.  Now, I must admit that my current vocabulary does tend to run along the lines of what used to be called a bit salty , and my current common cussiage is something four lettered and malleable, I still carry that childhood aversion to the word chosen for the American title.

Now that I have that off my chest, I can begin my rant on how I hate the glorification of stupidity.

Both films, at the core, are about how evil and vile these so called superior beings are in relation to the poor, dumb and actually naïve shmoes they trick into their dinner party.  We are supposed to feel sorry for the poor abused “idiots” (none of which actually are), and feel contempt for the guys who have made it and are amusing themselves at the poor folks’s expense.  Isn’t this most of the NERD films?  Let the underdog show how he is truly the better person by dint of his kind and virtuous nature.  Bull hockey!!  What happened to social Darwinism?  That’s what we see here, but the writer has decided that good MUST triumph and in the American version allows for the happy ending.

Before you folks believe that I would be one of the evil overlord types, I was the invited dog at a frat party once in college.  And, no, I didn’t catch on for many hours.  But I’ve grown and moved on.  So when I see Barry/Brochant not catching on at any point, and in fact stumbling even harder down that same loser path, I feel no pity or sympathy.  In fact, I just want to kick them and wake them up to the reality that they so desperately hide from. Is this supposed to be the humor?  I sincerely doubt it.

There is little I can say that would reflect well on either film.  Both “fools” were set up as talented artists, more savant than genius.  With the lack of social skills one often associates with autism they stumble through their daily grind, with few friends,  desperate for attention.

The real difference between the French film and the American is in the take on the “user” .  Pignon is left virtually unchanged emotionally by his encounters with Brochant, while Conrad is awakened to how horrible he is and rallies to Barry’s side.  While this change was made to give the upbeat ending Americans supposedly desire, I found the redemption neither truthful or uplifting.  It was a cheat.  Both men should have been left ruined by the experiences, or untouched by them, and then, oops, no story.  How sad.

So, now you ask, how is either film the glorification of stupidity?  Simply put, in each film, the naïve fool is left the final heroic moment and therefore given to glory.  To this I object!   I can tolerate a lack of knowledge, that can allow for growth.  I can allow for youth/old age because not all is available to their minds. But, I can not stand when a human being refuses to see the facts when placed gracefully before them.  That is the fool. The purposefully blind. There are your dinner guests.

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Comments
  1. Sean P. Fodera says:

    I’ve never seen the original, and had no idea that Carrell’s/Rudd’s version was a remake. We went to see it with our kids (13 & 14), who demanded that we see it. We laughed quite a bit, but I had gone in expecting a goofball comedy, and got it.

    One thing that suprised me was just how much I liked Zach Galifianakis’ character (or more accurately, his portrayal of the character). He kind of reminded me of Orson Wells in CASINO ROYALE. I had never heard of Galifianakis before, so I looked up a couple of his other movies, and watched a couple. Ultimately, I liked him best in DINNER FOR S… (truncated for Judi’s sake). I thought he was doing a low-rent John Belushi in the other movies in which I saw him. Much as I like Robert Downey Jr., I have no interest in seeing DUE DATE.

  2. Miki says:

    I actually haven’t seen Dinner for S——-. Never got around to it but I was planning on it. Yeah, it looked stupid, but it also looked like something my mom would rent. And then she’d put my siblings to bed early and watch it with me.

    Now that I’ve read your review I sort of want to see it. (Are you planning to make this a tradition? Hmmmm?) It looks like one of those movies where the comedy is over-the-top and weird but it makes you laugh anyway. Almost Monty Pythonish but not as good.

  3. […] Remakes For Shmucks: Two Versions of THE DINNER GAME […]

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