Americans have never heard of him and even the French don't always respect the considerable talents of Francis Veber. As a writer and director, he's had a hand in some of his country's most popular films, including "La Cage aux Folles," "La Chevre," "Les Comperes" and "Les Fugitifs" (all of which were remade, often indifferently, by Hollywood), but high-end approval has been lacking at home and abroad. His latest film, "The Dinner Game," turned things around in France, and is bound to do the same over here.
Perhaps Veber's best work as a writer-director, "The Dinner Game" was not only the lone domestic film to seriously challenge "Titanic" at the French box office, it was also, and this was a first for him, nominated for six Cesars, the French Oscar, winning three awards, including one for Veber for best script.
Expertly acted by Jacques Villeret, Daniel Prevost (both of whom won Cesars) and Thierry Lhermitte, "The Dinner Game" is a classic French verbal farce, in which, inch by imperceptible inch, things get beautifully and hysterically out of control. No one in France orchestrates farce with quite the skill of Veber, who without visible effort creates structures as delicate and elaborate as, say, a scale-model Eiffel Tower built completely out of matchsticks.
Francois Pignon (Villeret) happens to be passionate about such matchstick models. A low-level functionary at the Tax Ministry, he spends nights and weekends working on them and is all too eager to let perfect strangers know it took 37 tubes of glue and 346,472 individual sticks to construct his tower. "And the angle of the matches," he says, his voice rising in excitement, "can't be even a 10th of a degree off." You don't say.
In the ordinary course of events, Pignon would never socialize with an upper-crust type like publisher Pierre Brochant (Lhermitte, who's made a career of these kinds of narcissistic roles). But Brochant, arrogant yuppie creep that he is, is involved in a snobbish scheme that causes their paths to cross.
Brochant is the moving force behind an idiots dinner ("Le Diner de Cons" is the film's French title), at which heartless co-conspirators are charged with bringing complete fools to the table so that everyone else can laugh at them behind their backs. Brochant's wife, Christine (Alexandra Vandernoot), thinks the scheme is vicious, but Brochant insists otherwise and feels supremely lucky when "an A-1 idiot" like Pignon crosses his path.
Luck, however, is soon to desert the disdainful publisher. He badly wrenches his back playing golf on the day of the dinner and so irritates his wife that she decides to leave him. It's in this state, unwillingly chained to his apartment, that the oblivious Pignon finds his patron.
Short, chubby, with frizzy hair and a hangdog face that easily gets crestfallen only to irrepressibly bounce back again, Pignon is the most well-meaning of individuals. He'd love to help Brochant, he really would, but this timid man turns out to be a world-class blunderer, someone with a gift for doing the worst possible thing at any given moment. The more he tries to assist his new friend, the more devastating, and funnier, the results turn out to be.
Is Brochant's wife gone? Pignon can fix that. Or at least he thinks he can. Is the publisher's mistress (Catherine Frot of "Un Air de Famille") also giving him some trouble? Pas de problem. One would-be good deed follows another, and soon enough the putative tormentor's life is in so complete a shambles that "Idiots Revenge" would be an appropriate title for what transpires.
Putting the situation even more out of control is the appearance of Pignon's great and good friend Cheval (Daniel Prevost, the film's other Cesar winner), who just happens to be the most feared and ferocious tax inspector in France. "He'd audit his own mother," Pignon says admiringly, a sentiment that the horrified and tax-evasive Brochant does not share.
To watch "The Dinner Game's" principals handle the film's delicious lines and situations with the aplomb of expert jugglers is like watching a master class in farce. This is a delicate style of acting that doesn't get called on much in this country, and though DreamWorks wisely owns the film's remake rights, it's doubtful that anyone anywhere can do this story better justice than is done right here.
* No MPAA rating. Times guidelines: slashing verbal comedy involving adultery.
'The Dinner Game'
Thierry Lhermitte: Pierre Brochant
Jacques Villeret: Francois Pignon
Francis Huster: Just Leblanc
Daniel Prevost: Cheval
Alexandra Vandernoot: Christine
Catherine Frot: Marlene
A Gaumont International production, released by Lions Gate Films. Director Francis Veber. Producer Alain Poire. Screenplay Francis Veber, based on his play. Cinematographer Luciano Tovoli. Editor Georges Klotz. Costumes Jacqueline Bouchard. Production design Hugues Tissandier. Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes.
In limited release.