Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle The Dinner Game

By Steve Davis

SEPTEMBER 20, 1999: 

D: Francis Veber; with Thierry Lhermitte, Jacques Villeret, Francis Huster, Daniel Prevost, Alexanadra Vandernoot, Catherine Frot. (Not Rated, 82 min.)

In the utterly delightful French film The Dinner Game, the buffoonish Francois Pignon (played by Villeret, resembling a deflated James Coco) is a sad sack of a man whose good intentions and bad judgments hilariously wreak havoc upon the unsuspecting. Pignon is, anthropologically speaking, Homo Catastrophus, the revenge of the nerds made flesh. Just when you think that he's smoothed things over, Pignon blunders again with such devastating aplomb that he gives new meaning to the phrase idiot savant. Written and directed by the adept farceur Francis Veber, who scored similarly with Les Comp¸res, The Dinner Game is a laugh-aloud film that exemplifies the snap-crackle-pop of exquisite comic timing. What makes matters all the more entertaining is that Pignon's foil -- the rich, handsome, and successful Pierre Brochant (Lhermitte) -- deserves every indignity that Pignon unintentionally foists upon him. You see, the arrogant Brochant has befriended Pignon only for the purpose of inviting him to a weekly dinner at which he and others play cruel hosts to guests chosen for their idiocy. In Pignon's case, his after-hours hobby -- constructing replicas of famous monuments with matchsticks -- has earned him this dubious invitation. (One of his works is called "Beau Derrick.") Brochant's comeuppance here is nothing less than karmic; as intelligent and conniving as he may be, he is no match for this Parisian version of the Tasmanian devil. Villeret and Lhermitte are a great team in The Dinner Game. Different as night and day in appearance and demeanor, they complement each other in the tradition of the best comic couplings. Villeret's clueless expressions are invariably followed by Lhermitte's incredulous glares, and yet, it's funny each time it happens. In some respects, this film is a variation on the timeless screwball tradition of the mismatched pair made in heaven. (Think Bringing Up Baby, for example.) The Dinner Game is a welcome antidote to the Gallic propensity for wry, poetic comedy that only a Frenchman could love. In Veber, the French cinema may have found its modern-day Feydeau.

3.5 Stars

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