When watching The Dinner, you can imagine the producer shouting during casting, “Get me Richard Gere! Steve Coogan! Laura Linney! The brother from Orange is the New Black!” It is a shame that despite the stellar cast The Dinner possesses, the film completely fails to inject life into a melodrama so overwrought that it falls down on almost every level.
It’s is the new film from Israeli-American filmmaker Oren Moverman, and his first since the well-received Time Out of Mind; an intimate and sensitive study of homelessness that also starred Richard Gere. There is no question surrounding Moverman’s abilities as a director, but here he fails to keep all of the plates spinning in the air.
The Dinner is based on the 2009 global bestseller by Dutch author Herman Koch, and the narrative takes a satirical swipe at polite society and drives towards deeper, darker territory. Paul Lohman (Steve Coogan) is the film’s unreliable narrator, an ex-state schoolteacher whose outlook on the world is pessimistic at best. Coogan is very capable in the role, but is let down by a script that makes the character wholly unlikable. Coogan is given the best lines and he clearly enjoys being such an acerbic character. Paul’s enemy no.1 is his older brother, Stan (Richard Gere) – a slick, silver fox of a congressman who appears to be better than Paul in every way. Laura Linney plays Paul’s loving and doting wife Claire and Rebecca Hall is Stan’s whip smart partner, Katelyn. Stan has convened the dinner in an attempt to talk through something rotting at the core of their family unit.
The Dinner appears to be structured around the courses of the meal, with titles flashing up to indicate each course, chaptering the film. Each course is lovingly introduced by the waiter, Dylan (Michael Chenus) and Paul can’t stand this display of showmanship, in fact he hates everything about this ridiculous restaurant, and offers scathing retorts to poor Dylan that make you feel quite sympathetic towards him. Rather than keeping the characters rooted to the table, allowing tension to build and build, Moverman allows the characters, with each new whirl of bad temper and confrontation, to storm off from the table and go for a smoke or go and sit on the stairs in the restaurant (as childish as it seems). These breaks in tension and ferocity are unwelcome, and stop the drama in its tracks.
Although the film plays like a traditional four-hander most of the time, the film segues into several long and slack flashbacks that offer exposition around Paul’s character and his fascination with Gettysburg, at one point appearing to show a visitor information video from when Paul and Stan took a trip to the battlefield. Why Moverman feels the need to include this particular snippet is baffling, and most of the flashbacks – although good in principle – end up feeling extraneous, and harm the film’s ability to remain a taught psycho-drama, causing it to become a clunky thriller with a unappetising side dish of mental health drama.
Shocking actions carried out by the couples’ children are at the narratives centre, although when it becomes apparent that Moverman is going to spend 100 minutes of the two hour running time having the couples trade barbs and wander around the restaurant the shocking centre falls limp. The film’s final twenty minutes is the most engaging with Claire’s unexpected character development adding depth, and seeing Katelyn finally give Paul a taste of his own medicine after sitting there listening to him being an arse all evening is very enjoyable.
The Dinner could have been adapted into a play, and the film definitely has an air of theatricality about it, but ultimately Moverman’s decision to mix the chamber piece elements of The Dinner setting along with more conventional drama storytelling leave the film feeling horribly disjointed, with the non-linear narrative at times making perfect sense and at others wallowing in its own assumed cleverness. The final dish that it is served up is part-drama, part-thriller, part-societal satire and part-black comedy leaving the film with one too many elements on the plate leading to a very unsatisfying final product.