Anasty parlor game backfires with increasingly drastic and comical results in “The Dinner Game,” Francis Weber’s efficient and entertaining screen adaptation of his own hit boulevard play. Abetted by an excellent cast, vet writer Weber (who also helped adapt Jean Poiret’s play “La cage aux folles,” and its sequel, for the screen) weaves a simple premise into comic gold. Pic’s rhythms are proper to the stage, which makes this an excellent advertisement for the play (performed in London in 1994) rather than suggesting the material is ripe for remake. Tasty local returns are assured and, properly translated, pic could nourish patrons in any territory where the well-oiled mechanisms of escalating distress and attendant laughter are welcome.
Every Wednesday night, well-to-do Paris publisher Pierre Brochant (Thierry Lhermitte) and his friends try to outdo one another by bringing the most flagrantly idiotic dimbulb they can find to join them for dinner. He who unearths the biggest dope, wins.
Pierre thinks he’s got a thoroughbred nincompoop on his hands in accountant Francois Pignon (Jacques Villeret), who works for the Finance Ministry and builds scale replicas of monuments from matchsticks. What Pierre hasn’t counted on is Pignon’s infinite capacity for generating compound problems. Pierre will — barely — live to rue the moment he ever laid eyes on his own personal “world-class dimwit.”
Action unspools in one eventful evening. Having injured his back playing golf , Pierre, practically paralyzed with pain, invites Pignon to his luxury apartment before heading off to the dinner and its secret agenda. But they never make it out of the apartment. In short order, Pignon manages to aggravate Pierre’s condition and is accidentally privy to an answering-machine message in which Pierre’s wife (Alexandra Vandernoot) announces she’s leaving him.
Thanks to Pignon’s well-intentioned meddling, Pierre further alienates his wife and, additionally, ends up in hot water with his former best friend (Francis Huster), his mistress (Catherine Frot) and a tax inspector (Daniel Prevost)with a bloodhound’s flair for sniffing out fiscal fraud.
If there’s a faux pas to be made or a foot to insert in mouth, Pignon is the man of the hour. His knack for saying precisely the wrong thing to exactly the wrong person is exquisite. Audience pleasure is pegged to Pierre’s discomfort as Pignon unwittingly destroys his host’s bourgeois existence, literally adding insult to injury. When Pignon accidentally learns the real reason Pierre wanted to invite him to dinner, matters take a different turn.
Pic’s theatrical origins are never far away, but the pace and ritzy decor are such that unrelenting reliance on dialogue isn’t a problem. Lhermitte and Villeret, both fixtures on the cabaret and film scene for over 20 years, display winning comic timing. Villeret originated the role onstage in 1993 and played some 600 performances during the 27-month run; if nothing else, pic captures his perf for posterity. Prevost leaves his mark as that most feared of French archetypes, the tax inspector; the women have little to do except be foils for Pignon’s various gaffes.
Animated opening credits are cute and stylish. Unfortunately, the film’s official English title lacks the flavor of the original French (“con” being an unflattering term for somebody stupid beyond belief).