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It turns out one would rather be a “con” than a “schmuck”
When FranceinLondon.com found out that an American director was reworking one of the most loved French comedies ever made, “Le Diner de Cons”, our attention was obviously drawn to it. And so it is with great curiosity, and only a little scepticism that we went to see Jay Roach’s version, Dinner for Schmucks, in order to compare it to the double César Award winning French film.
Jay Roach must have faced quite a Cornelian dilemma when he decided to direct this spin on Le Dîner de Cons: Would his film be a direct transcription of Veber’s, or would it merely serve as a launch pad for his own comic inventions? Unfortunately for us, the director of Meet The Parents and Austin Powers Gold Member went for a bit of both: keeping the worse and changing the best of the original to disastrous effect.
One of the things Roach revises is the plot. In this version, the lead character is “Tim”, an up-and-coming executive who has just received his first invitation to the "dinner for idiots," a monthly event hosted by his boss that promises bragging rights to the exec that shows up with the biggest buffoon. Tim's fiancee, Julie, finds it distasteful and Tim agrees to skip the dinner, until he bumps into Barry, an IRS employee who devotes his spare time to building “mousterpieces”: elaborate re-workings of famous works of art using embalmed mice. Yes, quite.
The plot is not the only thing altered. One could also evoke the huge difference between the mythical French tax auditor and the I.R.S flunky played by Zach Galifianakis (The Hangover). The comedic charm of the original character is entirely due to the fact that, though caricatural, everybody knows someone like him. This is completely lost in Roach’s outlandish creation of a guy who believes he has the power to control other people’s minds.
And it is not just the characters who are given the exaggerated Hollywood treatment. In a patronising attempt to make the film more palatable to American audiences, the script has been dumbed down and many of the dialogues replaced with odd action scenes. Instead of keeping our attention, however, it has the opposite effect of making this version less, not more dynamic.
The problem is that Jay Roach has made the mistake that many have made before him: he has assumed successful foreign film Hollywood spin = successful Hollywood movie. Unfortunately, this is not the case.
In reality, by distancing his comedy from Veber's one and neglecting the French director’s structure (inspired by the fact that it was originally a play), Jay Roach has lost the essence of the only French film to rival "Titanic" at the Gallic box office when it first came out.
A much smaller cast and the fact that the whole film mostly takes place in the confines of the main character’s living room is what makes Thierry Lhermitte and Jacques Villeret work so much better as the French version of the comedic duo: they are tied together in a way that is simply not recreated in the Carell- Rudd version, who find themselves changing location every second scene. Moreover, Dinner for Schmucks' plot lasts about two days, and because of this it does not benefit from the same frenzied rhythm of the French version.
Dinner for schmucks has, above all, lost the theatricality of its French elder, this unbelievable simplicity that made us burst into laugher. We get the disappointing impression that Jay Roach has intended to confer upon his film a additional dimension to Veber's one, whereas it did not need it. The last sequence - the dinner in itself - turns into farce and finally descends into slapstick. The guests at the dinner are a strange lot, and produce a wordy succession of superpowers demonstrations. It is difficult to understand the relevance of this scene and others referring to sex, especially seeing as it takes the humour from subtle to grotesque.
The last disappointment is in the film’s moralising end-note. By changing the overall message to a very American “treat your fellows with kindness”, the punch delivered by the original “the “schmuck is not necessarily the one you might think” is lost and the final gust of wind is taken out of the film’s sail.
The best thing that can be said about "Schmucks" is that the cast, which is made up of some of the funniest comedians working today, did the best they could with what they had. There are moments when even the script cannot eclipse Steve Carell’s comedic talent, and against all odd Paul Rudd and Stephanie Szostack’s touching couple actually manage to inject pleasant doses of emotion amidst the nonsense.
In conclusion: there are some things that just get lost in translation and, sorry Jay, but it appears that your film is one of them.