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John Farr

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Yet Another Remake: Is Hollywood for Schmucks?

Posted: 07/30/2010 4:41 pm

Even in the midst of decent, more than respectable reviews, why am I not more excited to see the new Dinner For Schmucks?

Here's why: in my experience, American remakes of foreign hits are most often inferior. Most anyone fortunate enough to have seen Francis Veber's original Diner de Cons (The Dinner Game) from 1998 knows that to improve upon it would be virtually impossible -- or at least, I hope they do.

This delightful, intelligent farce about a mean-spirited game in which handsome, well-heeled gentlemen bring the biggest nerds they can find to a dinner, and how one smug player has the tables turned on him by a most memorable nerd well before they even get to the dinner, stands out as one movie with little need of a remake.

But since there's nothing original out there anyone wants to touch, of course mainstream Hollywood just has to try.

For those of you who don't know it, over the past thirty-plus years Veber has been perhaps the most gifted and prolific director of film comedies in France, and time and again, Hollywood has tried to recreate his magic via flat re-makes drained completely of the Gallic charm that animates the originals.

Raise your hands: has anyone recently re-visited The Toy (1982) with Jackie Gleason and Richard Pryor, or The Man With One Red Shoe (1985), starring Tom Hanks? I didn't think so. Both were inspired by successful Veber outings in France starring the inimitable Pierre Richard.

Though some will undoubtedly differ with me on this, even Mike Nichols's The Birdcage (1996), by far the most successful Veber adaptation this side of the pond, pales next to its predecessor, La Cage Aux Folles (1978).

You'd think that Hollywood might give up on Veber remakes, but no. They believe that by manipulating a proven formula, usually making it more obvious to attract a broader audience, and then pushing it out to the world via their enormous marketing and distribution machine, they will turn a handsome profit in the end. And -- maddeningly -- most of the time they are right.

I read all the reviews I could find for Schmucks, and overall I concede they were mostly positive, though somewhat qualified. However, it's pretty evident Schmucks is no comedic masterpiece, which I submit the original is (or if not, damn close). In the New York Times, A.O. Scott termed it "less a full-scale comic feast than a buffet of amusing snacks," just the sort of faint praise that puts me on my guard.

More concerning to me, however, is how the story and characters have been reworked for its American (and overseas) audiences.

One crowning virtue of the original was that the "idiot" or "nerd," dubbed Francois Pignon, was played by the late Jacques Villeret, who'd made the part his own on-stage and understood the story's central comic conceit: his Pignon was not a foolish caricature, but a real person with feelings. Even as we laugh at him, he inspires affection in us. And when he's hurt, we feel for him.

In this outing, it appears the enormously talented Steve Carell has stripped him of any humanity or pathos, making this "schmuck" so oblivious to reality that he's simply incapable of being hurt. Thus we avoid all that sticky, underlying emotional stuff (the very stuff that helps elevate the original, I think.)

At the same time the movie takes the teeth out of the victimizer, now played by Paul Rudd. In the first film, Thierry Lhermitte's character Pierre was a vain, self-centered bounder who got what was coming to him; here, Rudd's character becomes more or less a victim of opportunity and circumstance himself. Now his boss is the bad guy.

Hmm ... Sounds to me like both central characters have undergone a thorough, Hollywood-style sanitation process.

Roger Ebert claims the original was "a touch on the mean side." With respect, I say "Phooey"! So now the Pignon character is too clueless to register any pain or offense, and the straight man is actually a pretty swell guy (like every part Paul Rudd has ever played). And this is a good thing? Give me the vinegar of the original, thank you very much.

I guess it comes down to this: I'm bone-tired of watching formulaic retreads run through the Hollywood machine; material that may make us laugh in the moment, but that over the long run, blends in with so much similar and oh-so-familiar material we've seen before.

That's why, for the time being at least, I'm choosing to exercise my God-given right to just say "no" and remain at home this weekend with my precious wallet.

Come to think of it, I've got a special DVD I want to revisit: it's called The Dinner Game.

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