Schmucking it up
Dinner for Schmucks
I knew this was coming. Hollywood has finally gotten around to remaking Francis Veber’s French comedy The Dinner Game. I figured they would, but I expected it 10 years ago, and I guessed they’d do it with a team of stars like Steve Martin and Danny DeVito.
In 1999, when The Dinner Game came to America, that might have happened. Or it might have starred Billy Crystal and Robin Williams; they did in fact co-star in another translated Veber comedy, Fathers’ Day (from Les Compères).
But this is 2010, and Dinner for Schmucks gives us Paul Rudd and Steve Carell in the roles created by Thierry Lhermitte and Jacques Villeret, respectively. That’s not a bad start—or it wouldn’t have been, if writers David Guion and Michael Handelman and director Jay Roach had stuck to Veber’s original script as closely as they did to his title (Dinner for Schmucks is actually a more accurate translation of Le dîner de cons than The Dinner Game). But they just had to tweak it, and in doing so they demonstrate that they entirely missed the point.
In Veber’s movie (and the play he based it on), the protagonist is a smug, self-satisfied publisher who engages with his friends, all as distasteful as he is, in “the dinner game”: They meet every week for dinner, each bringing some “idiot” along. Then the hosts engage in an evening of ridiculing their guests, so subtly that the poor saps don’t notice they’re being made fun of. At the end of the night, whoever brought the most crashing bore is declared that week’s winner. This particular week, the publisher has found a dopey tax auditor whose hobby is building models out of matchsticks, so dimwitted that the publisher thinks he’s a shoo-in to win. But then the publisher’s wife leaves him, and his mistress enters the scene, and the auditor decides he’s going to fix everything up for his nice new friend. With the best intentions in the world, he makes the publisher’s life an absolute shambles, unwittingly giving him the comeuppance he so richly deserves. By the end, the publisher is wondering exactly who’s the idiot here.
Dinner for Schmucks changes the character dynamics and throws Veber’s beautiful symmetry entirely off kilter. The middle-aged publisher is changed to a young investment counselor, and since he’s played by Rudd, that terminally nice guy, we can’t let him be smug and self-satisfied, can we? Why, my goodness, he doesn’t even know about this nasty dinner game until he gets a sudden promotion at work and is admitted to the boss’ privileged inner circle. Then he simply has to go along and find a “schmuck” for dinner or risk scuttling his entire career. Gosh, don’t you see, he has no choice!
And we can’t have his wife leave him because she’s fed up with his meanness and sadism. No no, we’ll make it a girlfriend (Stephanie Szostak)—yeah, a girlfriend, that’s the ticket, and she walks out when he won’t refuse to go along with the boss’s cruel game. And the mistress? Hey, this is Rudd, man; he can’t have a mistress, are you nuts? We’ll make it a one-night stand from before he even met his girlfriend, and she’s still stalking him (the stalker chick is played by the aptly named Lucy Punch).
The point that Guion, Handelman and Roach missed, indeed, the whole point of The Dinner Game, is that the publisher (or in their version, the investment counselor) has it all coming. The matchstick modeler destroying his life while doing his best to be a helpful friend is precisely what this arrogant snob deserves.
Rudd probably couldn’t play an arrogant snob if you held a gun to his mother’s head—or if he could, he’d need better writers than Guion and Handelman and a better director than Roach. The poetic justice of The Dinner Game, what made it such a perfectly constructed and satisfying comedy, goes right out the window in Dinner for Schmucks.
But what if you never saw The Dinner Game? Well, if you’ve never had Dom Pérignon, then Two Buck Chuck probably tastes just fine. And Dinner for Schmucks has its fun—most of it provided by Carell, whose character is least tinkered with from the original. Otherwise, Guion, Handelman and Roach have once again demonstrated Hollywood’s ability to turn gold into bronze.