"THE DINNER GAME (Le Diner de cons)" is the kind of easygoing French lark we don't see much of anymore. I attribute this absence to the enormous revolution in independent American films that has all but displaced the supply -- and demand -- of foreign films.
So, it was nice to watch a lighthearted caper and have to read subtitles, as it was in the beginning before Quentin Tarantino. "The Dinner Game" is so slight and situation oriented, it almost feels like a TV episode. But it's a charming TV episode, good for a sustained giggle thanks to inspired farcical turns and well-timed comic performances.
Most significantly, it has the benefit of writer/director Francis Veber, who has made many enjoyable French comedies, including "The Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe," "La Chevre" and "La Cage Aux Folles."
Pierre Brochant (Thierry Lhermitte), a publisher with a fondness for practical jokes, has a cruel game going with his wealthy friends. To win the prize, the participants must find the most idiotic person imaginable, someone whose obsession with some inconsequential subject renders them terminally boring.
Pierre believes he has found the perfect candidate: a balding accountant from the Ministry of Finance named Francois Pignon (Jacques Villeret), who builds matchstick reconstructions of such famous monuments as Le Tour Eiffel.
Francois, ever the bureaucrat, loves to tell anyone who'll listen the exact number of matchsticks he used for each model, the precise number of tubes of glue, the whole geeky rundown. Although he was going to bow out of his dinner game because of a bad back, Pierre the publisher suddenly decides this idiot is too good to pass up. He invites him for dinner with his circle of pals.
The matchstick-making nerd is a winner, all right, but not in the way Pierre imagined.
When Pierre vents his suspicion that his wife (Catherine Frot) recently left him for an old flame, the bureaucrat turns into an instant closest-friend. It seems Francois also lost his wife to another man, a few years ago. It's time to help out a fellow man. Despite Pierre's protestations, the saintly bumbler contacts a pal (Daniel Prevost), a tax inspector, who just happens to be auditing the old flame Pierre's so upset about.
This is just the beginning of an extended sequence of coincidence, absurdity, misunderstanding and unexpected glitches -- the bricks and mortar of French farce. The tables are about to turn on the debonair trickster. His intended victim becomes his worst nightmare, a waddling, bad-luck mojo whose good intentions practically destroy the publisher's private life. And he learns the hard way never to allow a tax guy into his house -- not with all those undeclared paintings and Chateau Lafites around.
It's enjoyable to watch Lhermitte at work as the increasingly exasperated publisher. You can feel Pierre's disintegration, moment by moment, as he gradually gets his comeuppance. As the bureaucrat from hell, Villeret, who created the role of Pignon on the Parisian stage, takes to the task like a dumb duck to water. He's so annoying and singularly frustrating, it causes Pierre to intone with a sort of gourmet's appreciation: "This is record-breaking. World class! Possibly champion of the world!"
THE DINNER GAME (Le Diner de cons) (PG-13, 82 minutes) -- Contains sexual situations and commentary. In French with subtitles. At the Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle 5, Cinema Arts 6 and Shirlington 7.