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Movies for schmucks?

One of my favorite comedians, Eddie Izzard, has a great routine about how American filmmakers take great stories from British movies, rip off the general premise and add a heaping helping of explosions, aliens and other eye-candy.  I’d try to explain the routine in more detail, but why not let a crude Lego animation of the routine explain it for me.

This has been on my mind because the movie Dinner for Schmucks is opening this weekend.  Now, normally I can’t be the pretentious douche who says, “I saw the British/French/Swedish/etc. version and it was so much better.”  But, in this case, I have seen the French film, The Dinner Game, that the US film is based on.  It came on HBO about a decade ago, and, happy to be free of the typical schlock that HBO throws at me, the Wife and I watched it.  And really enjoyed it.

When I saw the trailer for Schmucks, even before the title hit, I knew that some big Hollywood studio had remade the 12-year-old French film.  It seemed somewhat promising.  Steve Carell seems to be a decent American counterpart for Jacques Villeret, although Villeret’s inherent wide-eyed innocence and eagerness to please is hard to match. Paul Rudd has a much more decent shot at matching the cool and self-absorbed co-lead played by Thierry Lhermitte.

So, about halfway through the trailer, I’m somewhat OK with the remake. Carell’s loser makes dioramas, whereas the French loser made models with matchsticks.  Several other actors in the US version, including Jermain Clement and Zack Galifinakis, seem rather inspired. I’m thinking that we haven’t seen a total bastardization of the movie.

Then, the title hits: Dinner for Schmucks. It was “Dinner Game” in France, but “Dinner for Schmucks” in the US. Because we stupid Americans can’t be bothered to have a bit of subtext in the title of a film.  “Hey, what’s this movie about?” “Well, they invite these schmucks to dinner.” “Well, let’s call it Dinner for Schmucks!

This one decision left me a bit wary, and the reviews (52% positive according to Rotten Tomatoes) are backing up my skepticism.  It seems the title wasn’t the only thing the producers missed on.  In the French version, the actual party is only the premise for getting the two main characters together.  In the American version, it seems to be all about the contest to get the biggest “schmuck” to the party. The party appears to be the big key event, while the original focused on one idiot getting another idiot into an ever-growing series of mishaps.

I guess Izzard is right.  The Dinner Game wasn’t a popcorn movie.  It was only 80 minutes, it was subtitled and it was (shudder) French.  Just transferring that to an American audience would not be a crime.  But, as the review from Killer Movie Reviews put it, “Americanizing a French flick is not in and of itself a death knell for a project. Flattening, sanitizing, and generally smoothing out the edginess in favor of product that is safe, dull, and lifeless is.”

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