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The French Did It First: Comedy Remakes (Part 3)

The final part of this series brings us to one of the most respected comedic stylings: screwball humor. Like The Birdcage, Le Dîner de Cons (1998) was originally a play, and it was actually adapted for the screen by the playwright himself: Francis Veber (I told you to remember that name). The adaptation is suitably play-like, utilizing only one location for the majority of the film and relying heavily on the banter of its performances for plot progression.

Le Dîner de Cons (1998)

The Americans know a thing or two about screwball comedy: Bringing Up Baby (1938), The Producers (1967), Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987) – all classics! Right?

I’m not sure if director Jay Roach watched those movies before adapting Dinner for Schmucks (2011). Actually, I’d most like to blame the writers: David Guion and Michael Handelman. A duo whose most famous other credit is the third Night at the Museum film – which they collaborated on with two other writers. These guys don’t even have a Wikipedia page to peruse, so I can’t rag on them too much, but good lord: the middle-school boy humor is overwhelming.

Let’s dive into it.

3. Le Dîner de Cons (1998)


A successful man invites a dim-witted IRS officer to his "dinner for idiots," only to have his life thrown into chaos.


PIERRE (Thierry Lhermitte) — TIM (Paul Rudd)

FRANCOIS (Jacques Villeret) — BARRY (Steve Carrell)

JUSTE LEBLANC (Francis Huster)/MENEAUX (never seen) –– KIERAN (Jemaine Clement)

CHRISTINE (Alexandra Vandernoot) –– JULIE (Stephanie Szostak)

MARLÈNE (Catherine Frot) –– DARLA (Lucy Punch)

LUCIEN CHEVAL (Daniel Prévost) —THERMAN (Zach Galifianakis)


There is a lot to unpack with this movie’s remake, which is not *quite* loyal enough to be considered a true remake. The French version runs 75 minutes, whereas Dinner for Schmucks runs 114 minutes.

To boil it down, the original follows Pierre, a publisher with a cruel sense of humor. He is one of the organizers of a weekly “dinner for fools” and is always scouting for talent. His friend found a guy with a passion for boomerangs – how can he top that? Well, along comes Francois, an IRS agent who makes matchstick replicas of famous monuments as a way to cope with the fact that his wife has left him for a co-worker. Kind of a dorky hobby, sure, but more impressive yet is his innate ability to misread a room. He’s thrilled when Pierre invites him to dinner under the guise that a book will be written about his strange passion.

Unfortunately, Pierre has a golf accident (I hate when that happens) and is couch-ridden for the remainder of the evening to heal his bad back. His girlfriend, Christine, insists that he stays home and not attend his cruel dinner, whereas his doctor sympathizes with the hilarious plan: his buddies used to do the same sort of thing with ugly girls back in college. Despite their shared bond over interpersonal cruelty, the doctor’s orders are to rest. Unfortunately, Francois is already on his way – Pierre wanted to “study” him before dinner. So the doctor leaves, Francois arrives, and the dominos start to fall.

Dinner for Schmucks (2010)

In the American version, Tim (Pierre) is an analyst at an equity firm that specializes in distressed assets. After a coworker is fired, Tim sees a chance to finally get a promotion. He proposes the recuperation of some deactivated, WWI-era armament bombs belonging to a Swiss millionaire named Mueller. His boss laughs in his face when Tim offers to lead the project, but later admits that he sees potential in the poor sap. The boss and his white-collar cronies invite Tim to attend a dinner – a dinner for idiots – as a way to prove himself. Tim, ever the suck-up, obliges. But his morally superior, French artist girlfriend, Julie (Christine), tells him “no way José.” He once again obliges. But then he accidentally hits a guy named Barry (Francois) with his car. And Barry makes replicas of famous historical events with taxidermied mice. So the game is back on. He secretly invites Barry to the dinner, explaining the evening as a gathering of “extraordinary people.” Barry is definitely dumb – he offers to pay Tim for the damages inflicted on him by Tim’s car – but he seems harmless enough.

The night before the dinner, Julie and Tim fight about Tim’s unethical corporate persona, and she leaves for the evening. Serendipitously, Barry has gotten the date of the dinner wrong, so he shows up at Tim’s apartment to clarify. But not just to clarify. Barry is there to accidentally ruin Tim’s life.

Obviously, Dinner for Schmucks is a lot longer. But it’s not just the dragging-out of certain scenes that renders it thick: it’s the complicated web of people. Tim’s boss, his assistant, his work rival, Mueller – none of these people exist in the original film. In the original film, Pierre has a friend named Juste LeBlanc who used to date Christine. He’s actually a really good guy, and he comes over to support Pierre when it seems that their relationship is compromised. Then, when a rumor starts floating around that Christine has gone to see another man (the mysterious Paul Meneaux), Juste offers to help Pierre out.

In the remake, Juste/Meneaux have been combined into the singular provocative artist, Kieran. As her coworker, he is definitely into Julie, but he also routinely drops wisdom on Tim, just as Juste does. Tim’s suspicion of Kieran ebbs and flows as a product of his own insecurity. Tim and Barry even break into Kieran’s house when he suspects that he and Julie are sleeping together. Tim does hurt his back at the beginning of the film, but Barry miraculously fixes it 15 minutes later, which makes you wonder why it was even a plot point in the first place.

All of the chaos in Le Dîner de Cons occurs at Pierre’s house, either in-person or over the phone, in a single evening. Dinner for Schmucks is spread over three-ish days. There is the talk of the promotion, Julie’s art show, Tim meeting Barry, Julie and Tim’s fight, Barry arriving and providing Tim with the worst night of his life (including the promise of an audit by Barry’s weirdo boss), the brunch with Mueller (for which Barry, ever the good friend, invites Tim’s psychotic, sort-of-ex Darla to pretend to be Julie), and then they actually have the idiot dinner, and then the denouement.

What’s so great about Le Dîner de Cons is how it subverts expectations by never actually getting to the idiot dinner. They are stuck in Pierre’s house by virtue of Pierre’s bad back and a series of misunderstandings. Francois accidentally calls Pierre’s ex Marlène instead of Christine because he misread the phone book, which launches the chaos. Pierre calls Juste out of good faith to see if Christine has returned to her handsome ex, and he comes over to help out. Eventually, when the duo receives the Meneaux detail, they bring in Francois’ boss to uncover the guy’s location. Christine is occasionally looped in. And just when everything seems like it has been solved: it hasn’t.

Dinner for Schmucks drags the suffering out and exaggerates the jokes to wring out as much of the stupid Steve Carrell juices as they possibly can. This takes us to our next section.


For all the ways that the remake complicates things, the most repulsive is the broader goal of trying to make the protagonist seem like a good guy.

In the original, Pierre is a Class A bully. He doesn’t smile much unless it is at others’ misfortune. The dinner is his idea, and his social standing grants him many of life's privileges. He stole Christine from his best friend and is now actively cheating on her with Marlène. He sees no use for Francois unless it’s to fix his problems. That said, he acts “normal” enough that most people would be none the wiser.

In the remake, Tim is a conformist. His “bad decision” was out of peer pressure and wanting to make a better life for Julie and himself. He is constantly changing his tune about Barry. I think this is a script problem more than anything. He slept with Darla (Marlène) before he started dating Darla, Kieran is a provocative sex god so Tim has every right to be suspicious of him, and his patience with Barry is depicted like the sainthood of a parent with a toddler. He still acts like a douche, and Julie calls him out for it, but the blame is thrust on Barry for creating these “revelatory” scenarios.

Speaking of Barry – my goodness. Steve Carell must’ve been high off his recent departure from The Office when he chose to star in this and Date Night in the same year. Two mid-budget, star-heavy studio comedies with a lot more flash than substance. With regard to his performance, uh… he’s definitely stupid.

Francois in Le Dîner de Cons does make mistakes. But at his core, he’s a decent, borderline charming dude. The film gradually humanizes him, culminating in his dazzling repartee with his boss, Lucien Cheval. He may be a loser, but he’s a loser in a happy-go-lucky, John Candy sort of way. He’s fascinating to watch and, compared to Barry, a probable person.

Barry, on the other hand, is in a world of his own. He constantly crosses social lines, and not by some innocent telephone misdial. He messages Darla from Tim’s computer when he knows Tim’s girlfriend has just left, he forces Tim to call Kieran even though Tim begs him not to, and he even throws Tim’s car keys up on Kieran’s balcony to “get Kieran’s attention.” The list continues. Just to emphasize how much of a sucker Barry is, the Americans turn his good buddy (who also happens to be his boss) Therman (Lucien) into the guy who is actively cucking him.

There are so many devastating character deviations in the remake (the semi-reasonable French Marlène is described as a “nympho” by the always-lying Pierre, whereas the American Darla is aggressive, crude and overtly sexual), but Therman is the most ridiculous. In the French original, Lucien Cheval is just a hot-tempered guy who happens to be really good at his job. He and Francois have a playful rivalry based on the football teams they support. Lucien visits Pierre’s house in person when he is promised dinner in exchange for the coordinators of Meneaux’s “love nest.” After Pierre hides all of his valuables and renders his fancy wine undrinkable (to avoid the threat of an audit), he and Francois crack a few jokes. However, the truth is soon revealed: Pierre’s girlfriend is not with Meneaux, but Cheval’s wife is. A rough night for Cheval, but he is once again humanized by this unfortunate situation.

In the remake, Therman is also a talented IRS agent, but his main thing is that he can exercise mind control, which he uses on Barry. Because… haha. Zach Galifianakis’s wheezing laugh scene in this movie is iconic, but unfortunately, it doesn’t end there. After Tim and Barry go to visit Therman at his place of work, it is revealed that Therman is the guy who stole Barry’s wife.

In the original film, Francois refers to the guy who stole his wife as “some idiot from work,” but we never meet him. But Zach Galifianakis was cast, so they have to milk him for all he’s worth. When Tim and Barry finally attend the dinner for idiots, Thurman is there as someone else’s idiot guest. And he continues to try to ruin Barry’s life with a rousing monologue, which is the single worst part of the entire movie. I will elaborate more on this in “Jokes.”


There’s not much to discuss about the technicals in either movie. Le Dîner de Cons is shot like a play, but it’s fluid in movement and Veber’s blocking utilizes the single space well. Cinematographer Luciano Tovoli is best known for his work on Dario Argento classics Suspiria (1977) and Tenebre (1982). He didn’t get to shine so much with the color in this film, but it certainly didn’t take away from the atmosphere. The edit by Georges Klotz is as tight as a movie can be. I wish all movies could get their point across in an hour and 15. Extra points for the wonderfully retro hand-drawn animation in the title sequence.

Dinner for Schmucks looks like a Hollywood studio comedy: brightly lit and glossy, with some unnecessary CGI toward the end. Cameraman Jim Denault was plucked from the indie world (Clockwatchers, Boys Don’t Cry) and thrown into the world of Bad Moms (2016) and My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 (2016). The scenes at Kieran’s house look pretty cool, mostly thanks to the set design. The office stuff is snoozeeeeee. Editors Alan Baumgarten and Jon Poll do what they can with the fact that the script is bloated and they have to make jokes about Steve Carrell identifying a woman via a picture of her ass.


I can probably count on one hand the jokes that they kept the same from film to film. When Pierre/Tim first meets Lucien/Therman, Lucien/Therman inquires about Pierre/Tim’s last name. The auditor then tells Pierre/Tim that he audited a guy with that same last name, and now he’s in prison. Other than that, Dinner for Schmucks primarily operates in allusion.

Le Dîner de Cons has some delightful jeux de mots and double entendres that exemplify the versatility (and limited sound profile) of the French language. Marlène Sasoeur is mistaken as Marlène “sa soeur,” or “his sister.” The silliness of the name Juste LeBlanc works the same way in English, “just LeBlanc.” Francois asks Pierre, “he has no first name?” There’s a bit where Pierre listens back to Francois’ obnoxious singing voicemail. Pierre jokingly compliments it and reassures him that he’s still laughing about it. Francois offers to do a song for Pierre’s voicemail. No, that will not be necessary. Many times over, Francois tells Pierre that he must “take him for an idiot,” with ironic flair. LeBlanc can’t stop himself from laughing about the horrific situation that his good friend/girlfriend thief has found himself in.

The fake feud between Francois and Cheval is the highlight. When Francois tries to figure out the location of Meneaux’s love nest, his sharp-tongued boss tells him “you’re not really his type.” They giggle and are unable to stay on task. It is Francois’ incessant joie de vivre that keeps the film moving forward. The film, like La Cage aux Folles, ends on a freeze frame of the two leads bickering. Veber clearly has a signature. Just when the film seems to embrace a lick of sincerity, it cancels it out when Francois fails to help Pierre get back with Christine.

Tim’s girlfriend Julie is given a larger amount of screen time in the remake, and she forgives Tim for a lot in the film. It’s never really a question of whether she’ll take him back, but when Tim will finally clear up the misunderstandings. Plot devices therefore include a lot of forgotten/exchanged cell phones, and Barry being the W O R S T.

Unfortunately, the vulgarity is turned up to 11. Darla is visceral in her provocations of Tim, at one point placing Tim’s phone in her pants when he’s trying to talk to Julie. She writes “I’m wet” on a napkin at the brunch where she and Tim are feigning to be a couple for his potential client. Therman gives a long, painful speech about how Barry couldn’t find his wife’s clitoris in front of the entire table at the dinner party (and then Barry counterpoints with Therman’s respective sexual issues). It’s a lot to digest.*

This issue brings up the recurring conversation about the frequently underwhelming role of women in comedy during this era of studio comedy – as sexual objects, or as pure motivation for the male characters. I’m not going to act like Le Dîner de Cons gave extensive consideration to the female perspective. None of the movies in this series really have. But at least the original didn’t pad the runtime by dragging out their humiliation, or by emphasizing how lame in the sack that Francois was. That’s neither here nor there for the story.

Regardless, Le Dîner de Cons is tighter, so the jokes are more refined and deliberate. Sometimes, you don’t process the last joke before they move onto the next. Dinner for Schmucks tries everything it can to elicit a guffaw or a gasp, and usually that is by shooting for uncomfortable shock value. I’m going to take a wild guess and say that a lot of the stars were allowed to improvise, and then confirm that hypothesis with a quick Google search. There are some American filmmakers whose highbrow comedic stylings are respected, but Jay Roach of Austin Powers fame is not one of them.

*I once had a German friend tell me that Americans are rather prudish about the role of sex in society, but all those suppressed thoughts have to go somewhere. Thus, the R-rated comedy. I now understand what he was talking about.


Ah, there are some wonderfully French moments in Le Dîner de Cons. A homemade omelet, a long conversation with a stranger on board an SNCF locomotive, and friends sharing swigs of wine (in which the addition of vinegar unlocked a “fuller body”). Hell, Pierre lives directly next to the Eiffel Tower. You’d almost think that was part of the joke. Most compellingly, there is subtlety. France, being as old a country as it is, has a high-context culture, so there is seldom the need to spell stuff out for the viewer. I probably still missed some things – it’s not my langue maternelle – but for the average, engaged viewer, a lone reference is enough.

The American version, as previously discussed, is mainly allusion and absurdism. I understand why the filmmakers decided to lean into that given the simplicity of the premise, but if you’re gonna be ridiculous, you have to commit to it. Jemaine Clement (doing New Zealand proud) and Zach Galifianakis definitely do their part. But then Tim is supposed to be an everyman and he’s supposed to teach the bad guys (the dinner hosts) a lesson, and everyone still needs to live happily ever after.

Like in Three Men and a Baby, the Americans invented a big climax: at the end of the film, the idiots burn down the rich boss’s house. Barry gives a worthy demonstration of the unworldly American in his interaction with the Swiss Mueller, during which he compliments his culture’s cheese and knives using condescendingly slow-paced English. He also sees a picture of Kieran with Nelson Mandela and reacts with shock that “he’s friends with Morgan Freeman.” When in doubt, throw in a joke about a white guy not being able to tell Black people apart. That’s American humor.


Le Dîner de Cons killed it at the French box office – it was number two of the year, finishing just behind a little micro-budget film called Titanic (1998). It won Best Actor (Villeret), Best Supporting Actor and Best Writing at the Césars. France did not choose the movie as its submission to the Oscars, so it was not nominated there, and it only made about $4 million outside of France (not adjusted for inflation). However, with no direct sequel in sight, its legacy is preserved.

The film was remade in three Indian languages before the Americans decided to give their go at it with a $69 million budget. For reference, The Social Network (2010) was made on a $40 million budget. It makes you wonder how much they’re paying these funny people. Dinner for Schmucks turned a profit, but not a super substantial one. No follow-ups have been proposed. Unlike the other two films in this project, it’s not really considered to be a “classic,” but I think it’s an important example of borrowing a concept and not paying proper respect to it.

I know I derided this remake a lot; it’s not as if it’s the least funny movie ever made. Barry’s earnest presentation of his “mouseterpieces” is enjoyable, Jemaine Clement has extraordinary physical timing and Octavia Spencer shines in a brief role as a medium who communicates with dead pets. However, I have seen so many of this type of improvisatory American studio comedy that I feel confident in my ability to identify lazy tropes when I see them. Movies like this may be fine for a momentary chuckle (and I’m sure it was a blast to be a fly on the wall on set), but the result is often an uneven, bloated final product. You’ve seen a Judd Apatow movie before. They’re usually pretty good. But there is a point when filmmakers must ask themselves: “Do we need all of this?” The indulgence is exhausting and the laughs are cheap. Why bother remaking a movie 12 years later if you’re not going to try to improve upon it?


I was not expecting to get so invested in this project. I clearly could not help myself from leaning into my bloated analysis. Perhaps a French person conducting this same project would be a bit more succinct.

Three Men and a Baby (1987)

But I love comedy. I love figuring out what it is that tickles people’s funny bones. There are so many producers out there testing out originals or reworks, trying to strike the perfect combination of premise and timing. I have to respect that, even if I think that the average American consumer doesn’t challenge themself enough. There is always context to be gained by observing foreign cinemas, even if we cannot fully tap into every cultural element. And – at least for the first two films in the series – there is a representational component that open people up to a broader societal progress. I can’t say the same for Tim, whose “aha” moment was that his high-paying job isn’t worth publicly humiliating people, but I’ve always believed comedy to be a clever vessel for change.

The mere attempt to approach comedy with an intellectual lens probably renders my perspective hoighty-toighty to the vast majority, and for that, I apologize. But there is something to the practice of connecting the dots and tracing our values back to the environment that has shaped them. We respond more quickly to things that are familiar – that’s human nature. Are we learning something in the process?

If a film is remade, chances are that the original is significant in some way: otherwise, how would we have heard about it? I don’t think it’s a question of to remake or not to remake, but rather of the intention with which we adapt someone else’s vision. Mike Nichols and Elaine May undoubtedly approached La Cage aux Folles with the utmost respect before leaving their mark on it. Leonard Nimoy’s take on Coline Serreau’s work may be corny, but it has heart. I have some doubts about the assembly of Dinner for Schmucks but it’s not a cultural touchstone, so who cares! The Americans took some funny ideas from the acerbic French and gave them the Hollywood treatment: bigger, bolder, and all wrapped up with a little bow. We can choose to embrace the styling that resonates with us the most.

I look forward to investigating comedy beyond my backyard. The French are sharp, but there are now some Scandinavian movies calling my name.

Force Majeure (2017)

This three-part project serves as an entry in my Innovation Scholars portfolio at the Ohio University Scripps College of Communication.



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