-By Doris Toumarkine

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This gem of a French comedy doesn't boast the lavishness of Francis Veber's blockbuster La Cage Aux Folles franchise, but its very tautness and on-the-money performances from the odd-coupled Jacques Villeret and Thierry Lhermitte help make this a highly amusing and old-fashioned big-screen entertainment.

The Dinner Game (Le Diner de Cons) was France's highest-grossing home-grown film last year and the proof is up on the screen. Foremost are the two performances from Thierry Lhermitte and Jacques Villeret, the former playing Pierre Brochant, an impossibly polished, arrogant and spoiled book publisher, and the latter portraying François Pignon, a simple little Frenchman who works in the dreary tax office of the Ministry of Finance and treasures the intricate building models he has created from hundreds of thousands of matchsticks. (As a kind of low-level number-cruncher, he can come up with the exact statistic).

So what could possibly bring these two opposites together and make their worlds collide in hilarious ways? Brochant and his like-minded snobby pals have a game of convening for weekly dinners and bringing along the most idiotic people (the 'cons' or 'jerks' of the title) they can find. Of course, the nominal jerks don't know why they've been invited and the hosts can feed both their faces and their outsized egos with the cruel ruse. But when Pignon shows up at Brochant's lavish apartment to accompany him to the dinner, Brochant suffers a terrible back strain that requires him to cancel, and, unfortunately, depend on Pignon to field some phone calls. Pignon may be a master of matches, but he's a dud on the phone. His gaffes get Brochant in trouble not just with his wife, but with Pignon's pal Cheval, a tax auditor.

Villeret is as perfectly cast as the kind-hearted 'jerk' as Lhermitte is as the French yuppie who becomes the unexpected fall guy. Daniel Prevost is amusing as the cynical tax auditor with a nose for cheats but not bad wine.

Yes, there are traces in the film of its origins as a play. Most of the action takes place on one set and the movie is largely dialogue-driven. But Veber's dialogue is terrific and his film so taut, funny, and often so unexpected, the hilarious goings-on work nicely on the big screen. The Dinner Game should further chip away at the stigma that subtitled films have suffered in recent years. It won't cross over (at least not until the DreamWorks remake in the works happens), but it should prove worth a detour to a lot of upscale moviegoers.

	--Doris Toumarkine

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