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THE WEEKEND MARQUEE : Hollywood Plays It Safe With ‘Dinner For Schmucks’: Dumbs Down French Farce

When it was released in 1998, the French comedy The Dinner Game quickly became the second highest grossing French film up to that point, racking up nearly $50 million, trailing only behind Titanic. The movie’s success immediately caught the attention of Dreamworks (which was then a newly formed studio) and there were plans for a Hollywood remake. The director of the French version Francis Veber set to work on rewriting it as an American adaptation in 1999. Then the project became a Hollywood tale like so many others. It sat “in development” for the next few years.

It isn’t hard to figure out why enthusiasm for the project cooled. Hollywood studios aren’t exactly known for throwing big money around subtle satirical comedies. The script was finally dusted off more than a decade later when it was re-imagined as a vehicle for funnyman Steve Carell. In the end, screenwriters David Guion and Michael Handelman got the screenplay credit and Veber is credited for the French version only.

THE BUZZ: Lukewarm. It would have been a genuine surprise if Dinner for Schmucks had retained the nasty edge of Francis Veber’s screenplay. While the plot remains intact; about a wealthy businessman who finds the perfect person to invite to a weekly dinner held by a friend, where the game is to invite the dumbest person they can find, the end result has been homogenized for American audiences. The movie was directed by Jay Roach, who was the pilot behind the Austin Powers movies as well as the Meet the Parents franchise. So it shouldn’t come as a shock that Dinner for Schmucks is a bland Hollywood product, as forgettable as a summer snow cone.

Rolling Stone‘s Peter Travers felt that despite the clunkiness of the script and direction, the actors are what make it work. He writes:

Roach includes the dinner that the French version didn’t. Everything is bigger this time. Jacques Villeret, who played the Carell role, built his dreams out of matchsticks, not mice. But when the silliness gets out of hand, it’s Carell and Rudd, having previously teamed in The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Anchorman, who remember to anchor the laughs in reality.

The Chicago Tribune‘s Michael Phillips wasn’t as charmed by the American version:

I think I’ll be in the minority on this one, but you know comedy: Nothing’s more personal. I found the heart-tugs at the climax almost grotesque. The French original wasn’t afraid to find subtlety within cruelty. The schmucked-up American edition does the chortling for us and then, as an afterthought, scolds us for laughing. Or, in my case, not.

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