I'm always on the lookout for good comedies. At times it feels like I've run out of them. You can't rely on Hollywood to produce a smart, well-made comedy these days. Judd Apatow and his crew are probably the only guys operating with half a brain; otherwise you're stuck with Will Ferrell or Adam Sandler films, which I'm a fan of both, but I never feel fully satisfied after watching one of their films. Below those guys, you're not likely too find much quality. If you're lucky a decent indie-comedy comes out once a year, something like Juno or Little Miss Sunshine. But there's no consistency. This is a long winded way of saying, that I'm in a drought of American comedies from the last 30 years. I thought I'd try some French ones.
I saw The Valet a while back and remembered enjoying it. It felt very much like an old-school Hollywood comedy, so I thought I'd check out some more films from filmmaker Francis Veber. The first one that caught my attention was Le Diner de cons or The Dinner Game. It was the premise that made it sound so promising. A well off guy, Pierre, and his friends organize a dinner where they have a competition to see who can invite the biggest idiot. Something totally original sounding and a plain good idea to start a film with. What kind of morons will be there? Will the guests figure it out? Will they get revenge on their snooty hosts?
The film starts out by introducing us too some of these nincompoops, but the cake is taken, when we meet François Pignon. The guy oozes simpleton; a perfectly round, balding head, a really bad suit and constantly perplexed expression. He works in a tax agency, but his true calling in life is building models of famous items out of matchsticks. Pierre hears about the legendary dunce that is Pignon, through a friend, and invites him to dinner, thinking he has himself a winner.
The interesting thing about this film, is that these two never make it to that dinner. Pierre throws his back out, so Pignon meets him at his house, thinking that Pierre wants to see photos of his models. Instead he ends up taking care of Pierre, who along with a bad back, is having problems with his wife. Pignon's wife left him not too long before and sees a fellow in need of help. His complete ineptitude in conversing with anyone, brings Pierre even more problems. Crashing down upon him are his nutty-mistress, a scorn friend who can do nothing but laugh at his misfortune, his wife's lover, and another tax agent with a nose for fraud. In one night, his life is destroyed beyond recognition.
The dialog is so brilliantly hilarious, the story built so perfectly, the characters portrayed so beautifully, that you don't care that most of the film takes place in one room. François Pignon is one of cinema's all time great comedy creations, actor Jacques Villeret, embodies a character so hopelessly inept, but so full of compassion, that it's impossible not to love him. Poor Pierre is helpless as Pignon tears his already crumbling life into tiny pieces, but we're shown that he deserves it, and none of it's done maliciously, so it's easy to laugh at his misfortunes. The Dinner Game provided the most gut busting laughs I've had in a long time. Although, I still want to see the film about them making it too that dinner. - Grade: A (Seen on 5/31/08)
After the utter brilliance of The Dinner Game, I couldn't watch another Francis Veber film quick enough. I moved his follow-up film, The Closet, to the top of my queue. This film too has a plot ripe for a Hollywood remake. A pathetic fellow, finds out his company is about to let him go, so he and a friend come up with a scheme to help him keep his job. He's going to "accidentally" come out as a gay man, so they won't be able to fire him in fear of discrimination. This of course leads to all kinds of wackiness with his co-workers treating him differently, most notably by Félix, who isn't quite sure how to treat a gay man.
Strange... I just noticed that the lead character's name in this film is also François Pignon, as well as the lead character in The Valet and some of his other films I haven't seen. So, François, played nicely by well known French actor Daniel Auteuil, while trying to portray someone he's not, learns all kinds of lessons about life, most notably that he wasn't being true to himself in the first place. He's able to gain the respect of his co-workers, his son and his ex-wife by not being such a pushover. But most of the comedy comes in the relationship he's forming with Félix, played by everyone's favorite Frenchman Gérard Depardieu. At first Félix cracks horrible jokes about him, but is soon convinced by another co-worker, that they must become friends, and Félix begins to see François in a whole other, more romantic way.
If I'd seen The Closet, before The Dinner Game, I probably would have enjoyed it much more. The Dinner Game made me laugh by creating the unexpected, while The Closet plays it right on the nose. I knew exactly how most of the scenes were going to play out, which robbed the film of many of its laughs. It's still a decent film, that's worth seeing, well made and acted; but I gave it unfair expectations. - Grade: B (Seen on 6/8/08)
Below is the American trailer for The Closet. I hate these trailers for foreign films, where the narrator does all the talking, trying to disguise the fact that you're looking at a film with subtitles. Oh, the horror!