After reading Leonard Maltin’s review of “Dinner for Schmucks,” in which he wonders if viewers unfamiliar with the work of Francis Veber and French farce in general will like the new comedy more, I feel the need to come forward as someone who IS familiar with both and who slightly prefers this version to the original. Unlike Maltin, though, I saw Veber’s “The Dinner Party” (or “Dinner with Dolts,” if you like another translation of the French title, which I’ll use for identification purposes) after seeing the redo. So maybe I was inversely disadvantaged. But as I noted in last week’s list, I’m fairly accustomed to Veber’s work, though admittedly I’m more familiar with the typically terrible American remakes of his films, including those he’s helmed himself, and what little other Hollywood gigs he’s undertaken.
As has been pointed out in a few places — though maybe not enough — “Dinner for Schmucks,” adapted from the Veber by David Guion and Michael Handelman, greatly expands upon the plot of the original film. Showing the actual dinner is just a tip of the iceberg, though, in terms of what “Schmucks” has over “Dolts.” The remake has a number of other settings, including a gallery, a farm, an IRS office building and a restaurant, but more importantly it’s spread out over more time. “Dolts,” which was a play before Veber brought it to the screen, is significantly more claustrophobic, confined for the most part to the apartment of Pierre (Thierry Lhermitte, originating Paul Rudd‘s role) and seemingly occurs in real time (it doesn’t really, but it feels this way). Simply put, the film is theatrical.
There’s nothing really wrong with a constrained film like “Dolts” — in fact it contributes to a feeling of being trapped with an unshakable moron — but you can’t criticize “Schmucks” for having been opened up so much, either. In a way, the latter is the more cinematic movie. It’s also overall a different kind of comedy (though perhaps still definitively a farce), because in addition to broadening the scope of setting it widens and exaggerates the fools. There are more of them, they are paraded in full, they’re more absurd. A lot of the humor of “Schmucks,” however, has that problem of hypocrisy I mentioned in a prior post. It makes us be the jerks who will laugh at the intelligently and socially disabled. “Dolts” has us chuckling sometimes at its main dolt, Francois (Jacques Villeret, warming up the role for Steve Carell), yet he’s a more genuine, believable and sympathetic character than his remake counterpart. More John Candy in “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” than Steve Martin in “The Jerk.” Carell is comparatively a cartoon, just one that appears real in comparison to the even more cartoonish fellow schmucks.
And I love a wild live-action cartoon now and again. Similarly to how I prefer Francois’ silly rhyming answering machine to Pierre’s conservative sort, I prefer the more manic comedy of “Schmucks” to that of “Dolts,” which I do believe Francois himself would consider to be a bit on the “flat” side. Compare the “talents” of the idiots in both films. “Dolts” is basically just filled with a bunch of poor saps who have interesting hobbies, be they building models out of toothpicks or tossing a boomerang around in a park. “Schmucks” has a blind fencer (the excellent Chris O’Dowd from British TV’s “The IT Crowd”), a woman who communicates with dead lobsters and a man with a funny beard. Really, though, neither film has idiots so much as eccentrics. Then there are the other characters, which in “Dolts” are pretty plain. Even the sex addicted mistress is unmemorable, especially next to Lucy Punch‘s insane stalker. Add Jemaine Clement‘s weirdly studly painter and Zach Galifianakis‘ mind-control IRS agent, both of whom are additional or enhanced characters. Even Rudd’s version of the straight man is more of a cartoon, most apparently after suffering a back ailment, which is oddly one of the few small details that makes its way from original to remake.
One thing I found really irritating, and not just because of its antiquity, is all the telephone use in “Dolts.” “Schmucks” has a few less noticeable uses of cell phones and there is one incident involving Internet chat (does Rudd’s character really just have his AIM on all the time for Punch’s character to just IM randomly?). But I felt like there were as many phone conversations in “Dolts” as there were in-person chats. It does allow for us to see other locations besides Pierre’s apartment — I’ll give it that — but it just adds to how talky the original is in comparison to the visually imaginative remake (I’m thinking mostly of the opening and closing credits, as well as the sight gags in Clement’s character’s paintings, but in general I believe it’s true). I must note, though, that the part of “Dolts” that got the biggest laugh out of me was a phone conversation moment (the reveal of the tax auditor’s wife’s affair via speakerphone).
I still enjoyed “Dolts” as much as I would love a Marx Brothers movie featuring only Groucho. It gets a lot of mileage out of its dialogue and exposition. I also appreciate the relative realism, the employment of a viewer surrogate (Francis Huster, who has little else to do than react to and laugh at the two leads as we ought to) and the fact that I never fully liked the Pierre character, though I could believe that he and Francois may develop a friendship of some kind after the film’s end. Another thing I like about “Dolts” is the way it references “Dogfight” — if not the movie, at least its premise, which I never have been able to figure out if it was a real thing.
In a comparative review at Film Journal International (which I read after having written the above thoughts), Ethan Alter near-equally praises both versions, noting the difference in comedic focus and the idea that “Dolts” comes from a more precise “organized chaos” than “Schmucks.” Other viewers will have their preference, many not “getting” French farce at all, some will dislike both versions. I laughed more often and louder watching “Schmucks” than “Dolts,” but that doesn’t necessarily make it the better movie. With comedy, it’s about siding with our tastes, and mine rest more on the American side.