The Dinner Game
Director: Francis Veber
Screenplay: Francis Veber, from his own play
Cast: Thierry Lhermitte, Jacques Villeret, Francis Huster
NY Distribution Status: now playing (Lions Gate)

Grade: C

Pity that François Ozon had already reserved the title Sitcom for his own use -- cut this baby down to a crisp thirty minutes or so, add a jaunty laugh-track, and voilà! you'd have a reasonably funny pilot episode for a wacky show about an uptight business executive and his lovable, exasperating, goof-prone neighbor. (Just have Villeret move into an adjacent flat in the season premiere.) Actually, even a phrase chosen entirely at random from a magazine ad or roadsign would likely be more apt than the current title, since the eponymous game -- in which a group of friends take turns hosting a weekly repast to which each invites the biggest dolt that he can find, with an (unspecified) prize going to the winner -- is never actually played onscreen. Are potentially hilarious comic premises so ubiquitous in France that the nation's auteurs can afford to virtually ignore the ones they dream up? Having previously seen only one of Veber's films, and that a limp American remake of a homegrown hit (Three Fugitives, one of very few comedies indeed to star the brilliant but rather humorless Nick Nolte), I thought I'd give him another chance; turns out that flat pacing, clumsy compositions and uninspired drollery are equally irritating in any language. (To be fair, a scene in which Villeret employs a broad Belgian accent in an inept attempt to disguise himself as a film producer is very probably funnier to those familiar with the accent in question.) I was curious, too, to get a gander at Thierry Lhermitte, one of France's biggest movie stars, who I'd seen only in brief as-himself cameos in Augustin and Grosse Fatigue; on the evidence of this movie, he's a smarmy Gallic Alan Thicke, blandly handsome and utterly devoid of charisma. Villeret, also new to me in spite of a formidable filmography, fares somewhat better; his buffoonish antics, which generally find him saying exactly the wrong thing to the wrong person at the wrong time, result in a couple of decent belly laughs, but one audible chortle every three quarters of an hour isn't a terribly impressive gag/guffaw ratio. Perhaps the most accurate title would be simply Ha, ha.