It’s a question of farce vs. formula, a really old school comedy prototype against tailoring a property to the current humor couture. In 1998, celebrated French filmmaker Francis Veber reinvented the fabled Parisian pantomime with Le diner de cons, otherwise known as Dinner for Idiots or The Dinner Game. In it, he offered asshole publisher Pierre Brochant (Thierry Lhermitte) taking advantage of his latest moronic find - a Ministry of Finance agent named François Pignon (Jacques Villeret) who builds famous facades out of matchsticks. Needing him for a weekly get together of his fellow smug businessmen, he thinks he’s landed a gem. When his bad back goes out, and Pignon begins meddling in his complicated marital affairs, Brochant realizes he’s in way over his head - and may not survive this madcap evening.
Now, 12 years later, Hollywood has stepped in and turned a likeable single room burlesque (complete with complicated misunderstandings and rampant mistaken identities) into a starring vehicle for current comedy aces Paul Rudd, Zack Galifianakis, and Steve Carell. Entitled Dinner for Schmucks and expanding the storyline significantly, director Jay Roach has parlayed his Meet the Parents/Austin Powers bankability into a gig giving life to this wholly unusual idea. Instead of staying within the traditional tenets of the original, the filmmaker follows his own unique muse, allowing Carell to simply walk away with the movie - and it’s a damn good thing that he does. While the overall effect is superior to the rather somber French offering, it’s also indicative of how far Hollywood feels it has to go for a laugh.
In the update, Carell is now Barry Speck, a well-meaning IRS agent who makes dioramas out of dead mice. He specializes in the Great Masters, as well as famous scenes from history. One day, upwardly mobile nebbish Tim Conrad (Rudd) literally runs into Barry while desperate to find a “date” for his own office dinner. Poised to earn a new promotion, he’s eager to make this meek, slightly sad man his idiot of choice. When Barry arrives at his house a day early, Tim has to deal with his demented ramblings. Through a series of miscues - and another faulty spine - a former sex fiend flame of our hero is called to his home, his wife is dismissed and is thought to be spending the evening with sleazeball artist Kieran Vollard (Jemaine Clement), and a rogue government employee who believes he can control people’s minds (Galifianakis) becomes embroiled in both Conrad and Speck’s simmering interpersonal issues.
In many ways, Dinner for Schmucks is the quirk-filled movie The Dinner Game purports to be. It’s a jokey, jovial mess with Carell earning as much pathos as chuckles with his clueless clown routine. There’s undercurrent and subtext here, something the French film avoids like le plague, and when all is said and done, you root for Speck to be appreciated as something other than a rube. With Villeret’s adult ADD-tard, you merely grow aggravated and frustrated. Carell understands the concept of being the outsider, or being delusional about one’s own value to others. Villeret is just a jerk - making mistakes that seem obvious and ordinary (phoning a writer about the film rights to his novel - in truth, he’s supposed to be gaining some valuable personal information - and then celebrating when he gets the deal). Even the dinner itself, which is barely touched on in the original, earns its last act payoff thanks to Hollywood.
This doesn’t mean Dinner for Schmucks is perfect. Far from it. It’s an often flat and frequently lifeless hodgepodge that can do little outside setting Carell up for more improbable punchlines. Instead of being stupid, Speck is unfiltered, honest, and naive. He believes in himself and his work with recently deceased rodents, and we never question his everyday role as part of the Federal fee machine. Pignon - aside from the far too noticeable name - is none of these things. He’s angry at times and belligerent, hurt when Brochant tells him off but then suddenly, slyly finds a means of meddling again. We never feel an affection between the two French men (and perhaps, we aren’t supposed to). By playing it conservative and audience friendly, by making Rudd a decent jackass who just needs his attitude (and his vertebrae) adjusted, we wind up with a much happier, and more heartfelt, experience.
Still, there are elements in Roach’s repertoire - by way of hit or miss screenwriters David Guion and Michael Handelman - that just don’t work. In Game, the mistress character is not so much crazy as a nymphomaniac who Brochant beds and treats badly. In Schmucks, she is transformed into the one night stand from Hell, a super skank who doesn’t understand the word “No”, relishes being in places where she does not belong, and overstays her welcome long before her big “engagement” scene. Similarly, the proposed lothario in Game is actually a decent guy - Brochant’s best friend who actually lost his lady love and collaborator to said pal. He actually helps his buddy track down the real paramour for the absentee wife. In Schmucks, Flight of the Conchords’ Clement is a self absorbed photographer so blissfully unaware of his macho meaninglessness that he struts around like a stallion on steroids. He repeatedly yearns for Rudd’s spouse, even when she gives him the brush off time and time again.
There are other major differences as well. The office setting is simply referenced in Game. It’s an integral part of the first act in Schmucks. An Austrian businessman (played by famed UK funnyman David Walliams) is another narrative cog that the French original doesn’t even address or deal with. From the reasons and reality of Carell’s single status (his wife left him too, except in the update, the rationale and responsible party are much more pertinent) to the deus ex auto-machina that gives Brochant a second chance, you can tell that Game was itself based on a stage play. It doesn’t take risks as much as constantly serve its own forward momentum needs. Everything that occurs must lock in somewhere to the storyline, less the theatergoer lose interest and patience. On film, you can get away with asides and pointless digressions - especially when someone like Carell is around to resoundingly save the day.
There will always be those who complain when Tinseltown takes on an international favorite—and rightfully so. You can count on one hand the number of successful American updates of noted international titles, and even then, there will always be an undeniable affection for the original. In this case, The Dinner Game delivers just enough to be mildly entertaining, but when viewed against Schmucks, and especially Carell, it just can’t compete. The premise promises things that the French just aren’t ready to address. While not always successful in doing so, at least the US remake takes chances. While they don’t always pay off perfectly, when they do, it makes the dialogue driven derivativeness of a certain Game all the more mundane.