Fans of the terrific 1998 French farce The Dinner Game are going to be pleased to find that Hollywood has some semblance of an idea regarding how to Americanize a foreign film. This long-gestating remake keeps most of the original comedy’s flair intact, ramping up some of the silliness while still maintaining some of the sweetness.
There’s no use getting into the differences of the two films. What’s the same is that both are about a group of successful fellows who get together at monthly “idiot dinners,” where each person brings an unsuspecting guest who is there simply to be made fun of.
The one change that will be divulged here is that in the original, the successful protagonist, Pierre, has been part of this club for some time. In the remake, Tim (Paul Rudd), an analyst who is slowly climbing up the executive ladder by showing some chutzpah to his heartless boss (Bruce Greenwood), is invited to his first idiot party — an idea that’s not very appealing to him. Nor is it to his gallery-owning girlfriend Julie (Stephanie Szostak), who finds it offensive.
But before you can say schnook (which would have been a much nicer word in the film’s title), Tim bumps into Barry (Steve Carrell) ... by which I mean actually runs him over with the car as Barry looks for dead mice.
Quick explanation: Barry is an I.R.S. man who practices taxidermy as a hobby, using mice in dioramas recreating famous scenes like, say, the Last Supper. He makes — here it comes — mousterpieces.
Tim knows he must go to that dinner and bring a winner in order to get a much-needed promotion. Barry becomes his new friend, Barry turns out to be a nudnik, Tim’s life gets very complicated. It’s not hard to see where the story is going.
But it is surprising to come upon some of the film’s turns. Although Judd Apatow was not involved in the making of the film, he’s had enough success to ensure that at least some of his formula is going to be taking root in other movies.
In this case, things start off funny, then they go wrong, then there’s some sort of redemption, then everything is OK. Once again, that formula works well. But what makes this film stand out is the spirited acting from both Rudd and Carell. Rudd’s Tim is conflicted. He knows he’s doing the wrong thing but can’t help himself. Carrell’s Barry has no such problems. He plays it as a wide-eyed little kid, always smiling, always looking for adventure, always in need of someone to bother. Or, as he sees it, in need of a friend. He seems moronic, blurting out whatever’s on his mind, maybe suffering from Asperger’s syndrome. But he’s got some real talent as a diorama artist and, no surprise, he’s got some emotional baggage.
Barry may be the film’s resident weirdo (at least until some other guests are introduced at the dinner), but he’s joined by some very different types that give the film a bizarre comic flavor.
There’s the psychotic Darla (Lucy Punch), a fling of Tim’s from long ago who, Glenn Close-like, refuses to let her man get away; there’s the villainous Therman (Zach Galifianakis), Barry’s boss, who rules him with “mind control”; and there’s the conceptual artist Kieran (Jemaine Clement), about whom will be revealed only that he is a completely original character with great hair.
Anyone concerned that the use of the Beatles’ “Fool on the Hill” on the soundtrack is just too literal need not worry. The inclusion of a great Van Gogh joke tempers the film’s faults.