Carell and Galifianakis Have Nothing on These Schmucks

Slate's Culture Blog
July 21 2010 10:22 AM

Carell and Galifianakis Have Nothing on These Schmucks

I'm finding it difficult to get excited about the upcoming comedy Dinner for Schmucks . It's not that I don't like the cast, or the conceit: Paul Rudd plays a well-intentioned schmo, who in a desperate bid to advance his career agrees to take part in a cruel game. The object: Bring the biggest possible buffoon to a dinner party for the host's perverse amusement. Steve Carell plays the titular schmuck, and the always-funny Zach Galifianakis plays a caped "mind reader" who also earns an invite to the unusual soiree.

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While the movie features some of my favorite comic actors, there's no way that Dinner for Schmucks , which appears to be rather lighthearted , will live up to the subversive French original: Le dîner de Cons ( The Dinner Game ) .

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A major critical and financial success in France grossing €75 million and inspiring remakes in India, China, and now here the 1998 slapstick film, based on a play of the same name, mixes vaudevillian-style humor with dark comedy to superb effect. Despite the weak subtitles, it's definitely worth adding to your Netflix queue, especially for any Francophiles who happen to be fans of Abbot and Costello . Written and directed by Francis Veber, the writer of La cage aux folles (The Birdcage) and director of the underappreciated Le Placard (The Closet) , the film stays true to its theatrical roots. After a brief prelude, the movie unfolds like a play in one incredibly tight set piece, as bigwig publisher Pierre Brochant contends with idiot-king François Pignon while trying to locate his estranged wife. (She's likely in the arms of another man.)

In the French version, Rudd's part is played by acclaimed Parisian actor Thierry Lhermitte, who's introduced early on as a true " salaud " (bastard): He steals his best friend's lover, cheats on his taxes, tries to hang up on his suicidal mistress after dumping her, and takes enormous glee in finding a rare breed of idiot to share with his friends like a zoo animal. Whereas Rudd's character, Tim Wagner, seems genuinely empathetic towards Carell's schmuck, Lhermitte's Brochant holds nothing but obvious disdain for his "world-class, maybe even world champion," putz.

Jacques Villeret steals the show as the slow-witted but well-meaning Pignon. Reminiscent of Carell's most famous character, Michael Scott , Pignon is easily distracted and completely oblivious to his own mental failings, but at the same time capable of minor cunning and (occasional) sincere charm. Lhermitte plays a fine Abbot to Villeret's Costello, but it is not until a second schmuck played brilliantly by prolific French comic actor Daniel Prévost enters the fold that the film starts producing constant laughs. Ultimately Le dîner de Cons attains the feel of a less violent Three Stooges movie (though, it's not a stretch to imagine Brochant barking "you numbskulls" at his two houseguests and conking their heads together while swirling a glass of Laffite Rothschild '78 ). If you're a fan of slapstick but want something a bit subtler than Jeff Dunham introducing a ventriloquist's dummy as his wife , then Le dîner de Cons could provide better schmuck for your buck.

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