The Magazine

Farce Gone Wrong

A problem in translation from French to Hollywoodese.

Jul 26, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 42 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
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Dinner for Schmucks

Farce Gone Wrong

Directed by Jay Roach

In 1998, the French writer-director Francis Veber made one of the cinema’s most compact and clever farces, a 80-minute piece of clockwork called Le Dîner de Cons (The Dinner of Idiots). Now, a dozen years later, it has been remade as the comedy-star-studded Dinner for Schmucks, with Steve Carell and Paul Rudd and Zach Galifianakis. The new title is in every way an improvement on the dull name that was slapped on the original when it was released here—The Dinner Game. But that is the only improvement.

Dinner for Schmucks is wild and occasionally imaginative, and it generates its share of amusement. But it is also labored, overwrought, and overproduced in the manner of one of those lumbering 1960s musicals that made people want never to see a musical again. (It’s nearly a half-hour longer than the original.) Dinner for Schmucks takes tiny details from Veber’s plot, whose tininess is essential to making the scenario work as efficiently as it does, and expands them out of proportion to chase desperately after laughs.

It gets those laughs, which is a good thing, and which is why audiences will flock to Dinner for Schmucks. But the anything-for-a-yuk style robs it of the signal quality crucial to all successful farces: a sense that the hilarious disaster unfolding before your eyes is inevitable, and that the disaster has arisen from the bad behavior of the pivotal character whose life is spinning out of control. 

The biggest mistake is the softening of the lead character, played by Paul Rudd. Rudd is usually wonderful, but here he struggles with his part—which is understandable, because it makes no sense. In the original, the Rudd character is a smart, self-satisfied, cold-hearted intellectual, a successful book publisher whose circle of equally self-satisfied and cold-hearted intellectuals has an odd hobby. They attend a weekly dinner at which they compete to host a deluded and foolish person with a ludicrous vocation to give a presentation—the sole purpose of which is quiet, silent, and deadly mockery so sophisticated that the idiot in question never even knows he’s being made fun of.

In the remake, Rudd is a nice but ambitious guy who wants a promotion at work. His boss, whom he barely knows, is the host of the dinner for schmucks. He is invited to join in, with the understanding that if he fails to do so, and fails to bring a quality moron to the dinner, he will lose his job. He doesn’t want to participate, but he does so anyway, because he wrongly believes his delightful girlfriend will finally marry him if he makes it big.

He then encounters a peerless dope, an IRS accountant played by Carell—an amateur taxidermist who makes dioramas of great historical events featuring dead mice dressed up in doll outfits. He invites Carell to the dinner, and then, having brought Carell into his life, the idiot unwittingly ruins it. He is a “tornado of destruction,” Rudd complains—endangering his job, his apartment, his car, and his relationship. The positive alteration in Rudd’s character makes a hash out of the farce. Since he is basically someone with whom we are in sympathy, the destruction Carell wreaks on him seems wildly out of proportion and unjust. One feels more for Rudd than for Carell, and this upsets the movie’s balance.

In the original, by contrast, the protagonist is a Nietzschean superman whose comeuppance at the hands of a Kryptonite-like idiot is emotionally satisfying. He’s a ferocious snob who stole his best friend’s girl, is now cheating on her with someone else, and cheating on his taxes, and is the leader of a heartless scheme to wring cruel humor out of the quirks of his fellow man. 

Veber’s splendid farcical point is that this intelligent sophisticate proves to be as much a fool as the unquestionable fool who, good-heartedly and without a speck of malice, takes a hatchet to the sophisticate’s life in the space of a single hour. Le Dîner de Cons is, at root, an assault on intellectual arrogance of a specifically Gallic sort. 

One could imagine a setting in which an analogue of the Parisian affect might work: Among bored academics in a university town, for example. But clearly, screenwriters Michael Handelman and David Guion and director Jay Roach thought Veber’s use of intellectuals as villains would go over the heads of a mass American audience. And so they resorted to (what else?) evil financial-services guys. The concept of an “idiot dinner” is believable in the original; it just seems like a weird plot gimmick here.

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