The Dinner Game is a lightweight French comedy from Francis Veber, who is best known for writing La Cage Aux Folles, remade in the U.S. as The Birdcage. The Dinner Game starts with a good recipe, follows it closely, and serves it up in an appropriate (if cheap) dish. The only thing wrong is that it’s all dessert.
Mr. Brouchant belongs to a club of successful former frat boys. The club meets each Wednesday, and each member must bring one idiot. Whoever’s idiot is the most long-winded and boring, wins. The movie introduces a few examples of prize dates: a bank teller with an opinion on everything, a boomerang collector, and a man who makes elaborate models out of matchsticks.
The Birdcage, 1996, Mike Nichols, the remake of La Cage Aux Folles.
Brouchant’s pick of the week is Mr. Pignon, the matchstick modeler. He invites Pignon over to his house for drinks before dinner, but that afternoon, he throws out his back playing golf. His doctor says he has to stay home and rest.
Pignon shows up for drinks anyway, and Brouchant marvels at what a perfect idiot he is. Not only does he go on and on about his matchstick models, but he gets confused over the simplest conversational turns. He is a grade-A, prize idiot.
The plot takes off from here at a steady pace that keeps increasing as the movie races toward the end. First Brouchant’s wife calls to dump him, and Pignon wants to be a shoulder to cry on. Then Brouchant’s girlfriend calls and invites herself over, and Pignon volunteers to try to keep her away. All the while, Pignon’s “help” invariably makes things worse. Brouchant keeps saying “au revoir” but Pignon always finds one more reason to stay.
Eventually, what should have been a relaxing evening at home for the ailing Brouchant, becomes a chaotic scene with Pignon, an old friend, his wife, his wife’s boyfriend, his girlfriend, and a tax auditor who works with Pignon.
A complex comedic plot like this needs to have an ending that is not contrived, and Veber comes up with something that caps it all off, without coming across as deus ex machina. It is the best possible ending for this film.
The direction, also by Veber, is competent. The greatest directorial challenge in a movie like this is to keep the plot moving ahead, constantly accelerating. The pace can’t slow down for a second, and Veber handles this task very well. He also coaxes some good performances out of his actors. I’m not familiar with any of the cast, but nobody was wooden or amateurish. Each character was solid, “believable,” and true to the world of the script.
The most serious flaw of The Dinner Game is its feather weight. The whole thing is insubstantial and meaningless. The sets and lighting are stagey, like a play or a studio sitcom. The comedic extremes to which the plot goes are so silly that they can’t be taken seriously. As funny and well written as it is, it’s still a throwaway movie.
I found sitting through The Dinner Game to be enjoyable and amusing, but I really got nothing out of it, which ultimately makes me like it less.
You could say The Dinner Game is all dessert and no main course.