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It was a huge hit in France—on the stage! The buzz around The Dinner Game harbors three separate indications that the film must at all costs be good: It is French, it has a theatrical imprimatur, and it entertained vast numbers of actual French citizens—who, we know, cannot be wrong in matters of artistic, particularly cinematic, taste.
It is only American cultural insecurity that adds up these three zeroes to make a perfect 10, as well as the long, but now vestigial, arm of the legacy of great French cinema. While there is nothing specifically terrible about the latest comedy from Francis Veber’s social-discontents factory, it has no interest in greatness or ideas or nuance, either. The film’s very breeziness and lack of ambition don’t make it good, only competent, and its competence is the secret to its crowd-pleasing capacity back in the old country—where, I assure you, the mainstream audience craves as much slick, not-too-thinky comedy as any crowd in Peoria.
Veber’s glossy brochures for the zany French bourgeoisie have landed on our coffee tables before, with La Cage Aux Folles, The Tall Blond Man With One Black Shoe, and La Chevre. It is always a relief to enter this world, if a bit suffocating to hang around there—this is the antiseptic, comfortable, upper middle class the critic Andrew Sarris used to call air-conditioned, in which only one notion is challenged and that itself is neatly resolved, in which there are payoffs but no consequences. The story centers around publisher Pierre Brochant (Thierry Lhermitte) and his group of nasty friends, whose idea of fun is to hold a weekly dinner party at which each escorts un con—fool, bastard, dickhead, but the film translates the word to its meaning of “idiot.”
Veber seems unable to make the most of this fine idea. The men define idiots as people who fixatedly pursue a geeky pastime. The premise is a bit like that of Ray Bradbury’s classic short story “The Watchful Poker Chip of H. Matisse,” but Bradbury’s patsy and the beat hipsters who gathered to jeer at him in wonderment were separated not by anything so sentimental as social sensibility but by sheer taste—an attitude that still resonates among the artsy elite today. For the film, a more diverse set of fools bonding and warring over dinner might have made for an exquisite, vicious farce, but we never get to the dinner or to meet the guests. Just after Pierre meets Francois Pignon (Jacques Villeret), a frizzy-haired, garrulous slob on a train who can’t stop talking about his hobby of re-creating engineering feats such as bridges and structures out of matchsticks, Pierre wrenches his back and must bow out of the party.
Idiots are fair game, Pierre explains to his wife, who wants none of it. Right from the start we are instructed to despise the yuppie snobs who indulge in this prank—the bore believes the cruel fiction that Pierre is interested in publishing a book on his matchstick creations, and we are shown a glimpse of the actual dinner party, at which the bores sit on one couch speaking passionately of their hobbies while the hosts sit across from them smirking openly. There is no guilty, conflicted fun in laughing at the suckers, just righteous indignation and a sense of assurance that the gamesters will be thoroughly shown up.
Because Veber slots all the feelings into place early on, he is free to set up his dominoes of farcical misunderstandings, overheard conversations, and slips of the tongue, and the whole hilarity-strewn path of good intentions gone awry. Wives walk out, melodramatic mistresses act out, a particularly keen-eyed tax auditor comes by for dinner, and every phone call leads to a new tangle of promising comedic red herrings. As Francois, the patsy who turns out to be smarter and more decent than his host, Villeret has wonderful sad eyes and an eager, hopeless smile that telegraph both the puppyish willingness to please and the irritating patsyishness that exasperate Pierre. Still, I couldn’t help envisioning The Dinner Game as next year’s Three Men and a Baby, also a remake of a French smash. Let’s call it Fool Me Twice. I’m thinking Timothy Dalton as Pierre, Wallace Shawn as Pignon, and Bronson Pinchot as the auditor. The only glitch that might keep this scenario from going over big with the American audience: Whom does Steve Guttenberg play?
It’s been a swell season for silly, overwrought adventure-serial-style period epics, many of which seem to star Antonio Banderas. Last year’s swashbuckling The Mask of Zorro started the trend, with this summer’s The Mummy upping the f/x ante—these films have a grandiose cheesiness and total dedication to their theme-park conventions that make them each feel like the best movie ever without actually being any good. Enter The 13th Warrior, which stars Banderas but isn’t actually about his character, shows no fewer than four beheadings, and includes lines like “Help me carry Ragnar out.”
Looking as if he’s been hit between the eyes with a shovel, Banderas plays Ahmed, an intellectual scribe banished from Baghdad, out of the sultan’s sight, for making sultry with the wrong veiled woman. In his travels through central Asia, he encounters a sort of extended heavy-metal band of fierce but hearty barbarian warriors, led by the noble, hard-partying Buliwyf (Vladimir Kulich). The group soon learns that a settlement of frightened northmen is fending off the devastating attacks of a huge posse of demony, horned, horseback-riding, man-beast thingies, called Wendols, or they who must not be named—whatthe?! Any old how, it is inexplicably prophesied by a shriveled old Yoda soothsayer lady, also with poor syntax—must be a soothsayer thing—that 13 warriors including a non-Norsefellow must battle the Wendols—which means the peaceful Arab must join the road crew.
It would take a pack of sword-brandishing Wendols to get me anywhere near Michael Crichton’s book, Eaters of the Dead, on which this movie is based, so I can’t tell you whether manly man’s director McTiernan injected this epic of blood-spewing fluff with artistic, literary, and intellectual pretensions, or they come free. Although the story isn’t really Ahmed’s—he’s the scribe/outsider so handy to narrative—the Arab brings enlightened Islam to the illiterate barbarians and figures out what exactly the Wendols are so that the rapidly dwindling 13 swordsmen can fight them. The 13th Warrior nestles into place behind the saga Beowulf, making itself part of the bloodline of the Western world’s mythmaking, and struts around like the inheritor of Akira Kurosawa’s great battle epics, the greatest of them being The Seven Samurai.
McTiernan has certainly been to Blockbuster lately—the camera has Kurosawa’s swirling, kinetic energy during the battle scenes, and it dotes on images of the bearskin-wearing Wendols with their horned, oversize heads riding in slo-mo silhouette over the misty hills. When it’s all over and the age of superstition and dark gods has been ritually slain by the rational man of tomorrow, all of the references to the birth of ratiocination through the vanquishing of brutality—Beowulf, The Seven Samurai, the story of Haroun al-Rashid’s last days—seem actually ennobled by this homage. CP