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GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER

Rich, obnoxious Paris yuppies get their kicks organizing dinners and inviting unsuspecting idiots as guests, with a prize quietly going to the yuppie who brings the biggest idiot.

So what would happen if the tables were turned, and the rich man were punished for his cruel behavior by the very idiot he has singled out for humiliation? Writer-director Francis Veber, author of "La Cage Aux Folles" and other comedies that later were remade into Hollywood films, returns to the style of smart French comedies of the '70s with "The Dinner Game" ("Le Diner de Cons"), a witty and entertaining film inspired by a real-life game invented by wealthy Parisians.

Jacques Villeret plays Francois Pignon, a finance ministry accountant who reproduces classic monuments from matchsticks and can describe exactly how many matchsticks (343,422) and tubes of glue it took to build his Eiffel Tower.

Thierry Lhermitte is Pierre Brochant, a handsome and egotistical publisher who hears about Pignon and invites him over for a chat to test his "idiot" potential, but then throws out his back and can't attend the dinner. Meanwhile, Pignon, trying to be helpful to his new "friend," hangs around Brochant's apartment and unwittingly invites one disaster after another into Brochant's life.

The movie, which began as a stage play, is fairly successful at avoiding the claustrophobic feeling of a drama revolving around two characters interacting in a room. (To this purpose, set designer Hugues Tissandier rebuilt an Eiffel Tower that weighed 5 1/2 tons and was on rollers so it could be moved from one window to another.) Also, the other idiots selected for the rich men's dinner (a boomerang collector who brags that he can "behead a kangaroo from 150 feet," and a simpleton whose friends express amazement he has been invited) are first shown on their home turf, establishing their idiot potential as well as their innocent humanity.

Villeret, a comedian and stage star for more than 20 years, created the role of Pignon on stage. With his clownish, wide, expressive face, his Pignon is marvelous as both savant and idiot, alternating in a convincing way between surprising insight and moronic bumbling.

The drama plays out the classic conflict between the two characters with lots of slapstick physical humor as Pignon makes his well-intentioned but disastrous attempts to help Brochant, and Brochant gradually comes to realize that it is he himself who is the idiot.

But once an idiot, always an idiot, as Pignon proves in a funny twist at the end. As Veber notes, "The most dangerous thing in life is a jerk who is trying to be helpful."

Hollywood has tried to translate Veber's comedies with less than sparkling success. His marvelous "Les Comperes" starring Gerard Depardieu became the poorly received "Fathers Day" with Billy Crystal and Robin Williams. But Veber's "Hold-up" became "Quick Change," a lesser-known Bill Murray comedy with a hilarious Murray solo turn at the beginning. Veber also directed the French and American versions of his "Three Fugitives" (starring Nick Nolte and Martin Short). Other remakes of his work were "Buddy, Buddy," "The Toy" and "Pure Luck."

The class conflict in "The Dinner Game," of civil servant vs. aristocrat, wouldn't translate, but someone undoubtedly will try it anyway. The French love Jerry Lewis, but he's too old to play Pignon. Pair up Bill Murray and Richard Dreyfuss, perhaps? Danny DeVito and Kevin Costner? Steve Zahn and George Clooney? The possibilities are frightening.

RATING: *** STARS

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