The Dinner (2017)

How far would you go … to protect your children?

As someone who admires what can be realized through crackling dialogue, minimal locations and a handful of interesting characters, I’m very much into films that resemble stage plays — either directly adapted from theater such as Fences (2016) or original material like Margin Call (2011). At its finest, this talk-y ‘sub-genre’ is the very definition of ‘drama as conflict’ distilled to its very core, enhanced by the benefits of cinema — utilizing real locations and cinematography to magnify the actors, who are doing what they do best.

So, with great eagerness I was ready to tuck into The Dinner, the third film adaptation of the acclaimed novel of the same name by Dutch author Herman Koch. With all of the right ingredients seemingly laid out on the table, I decided to accept this version on its own terms, having faith it would pay off. Unfortunately, just as the ‘aperitif’ was being served, it became rapidly apparent that this feast was going to be severely undercooked.

Toasting to the tension

The basic plot revolves around the uncomfortable reuniting of brothers Paul and Stan Lohman (Steve Coogan and Richard Gere respectively) and their wives, Claire (Laura Linney) and Katelyn (Rebecca Hall), who meet over a dégustation at an upper class restaurant. Paul is a high school teacher, an angry, dry man obsessed with history and a kind of radical idealism, while Stan, a congressman, is concerned about the future and moderation, looking to climb up the political ladder.

Through flashbacks and heated discussions, we come to understand the wedge that has caused their divide. See, Paul’s teenage son, the bratty Michael (Charlie Plummer) and his quiet cousin Rick (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick), had been involved in a despicable act of violence. Stan’s adopted and often taunted son, Beau (Miles J. Harvey), eventually discovered footage of the incident on Michael’s phone and leaked it online, without exposing the identities of culprits Michael and Rick. As the courses continue, all of the family skeletons begin to emerge from the closet, along with questions relating to responsibility and morals.

Just from the summary, one can see that, conceptually, the material’s very strong and promising; however, the central issue that permeates across the whole execution is a distinct lack of focus. What could’ve been a nice, tight five-course meal in filmmaking ends up being the wrong cut of meat — one bloated with fatty excess and minimal flavor. The Dinner opens well enough, the title sequence setting up intrigue as fine dining is served up over sinister sounding musical chords. As we meet Paul, he appears to be a darkly funny cynic, who carries interest to a point and then becomes rapidly annoying. It’s not Steve Coogan’s fault — his performance is actually pretty bang-on for the character I felt — the problems stemming from writer-director Oren Moverman’s adapted script and subsequent execution.

‘A glass of wine counts as a serving of fruit, right?’

In a classic tale of ‘what if?’ Moverman’s screenplay was originally going to be the directorial debut of acclaimed actress Cate Blanchett, who had performed another of Moverman’s scripts with I’m Not There. (2007). I can only speculate that, perhaps, Blanchett’s enthusiasm for the story waned upon learning of how wasteful Moverman’s interpretation had become.

Let’s begin with the scripting issues. For some inexplicable reason, the story is told from Paul’s point-of-view, with a senseless voice-over drowning the audience in his cynical outlook on human nature. Instead of enhancing any knowledge of the character, his world and the story, it just simply distracts.

Stemming from that, another slap to the forehead is the excessive use of flashbacks, which the Israeli director uses as a poor attempt to deepen our understanding of Paul’s mindset. Guess what? It doesn’t. More so, after spending a good hour with the guy at his most grating, we’re meant to dismiss any judgements because Moverman goes for a classic crutch explanation — he’s got mental issues. Sorry Sir, but you’ve lost me already.

The inverted cherry on this upside-down cake would have to be the use of music, which perhaps, more than other aspects of production, proves that Moverman couldn’t lock onto an intention. After a moody title sequence, it’s all abruptly disrupted by a ‘rocking’ party, which, okay, I’ll accept. But the horrible choices continue, with Moverman’s decisions clashing against the tones of specific scenes, chiefly in the first half of the story. Dramatic beats are jarringly cut against moments of pop music. Why? What is going on? I’m not even going try to decipher the possible meaning behind these clumsy choices. Oh, and the ending might rank as the worst I’ve seen this year.

Laying it all out on the table.

All these shonky elements seem to do is to break away from what should be at the front and center, the most interesting aspect of the film — the dinner itself and the arguments contained within. One can sense Moverman’s fear that to simply sit at the table and let the characters have it out over a brisker running time (of say 90 minutes) would spell disaster for the film. If this is truly so, he should really re-watch something like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966), a tour-de-force that pretty much stays in a single lounge as two couples duke it out. Better yet, he should check out one of my all-time faves, Roman Polanski’s Carnage (2011), which also deals with two sets of parents attempting to reconcile their children’s wrongs.

It’s just plain sad that with the caliber of cast on display here — including an extended cameo by Chloë Sevigny, Love & Friendship (2016), and the dependable Richard Gere, Primal Fear (1996) — plus the full potential of the source material, The Dinner never takes off. Despite some solid performances, the film just can’t overcome the inadequacies of a half-baked script and lack in direction. If you ask me, just skip The Dinner and take up lunch with Carnage instead.

2 / 5 – Average

Reviewed by Steve Ramsie

The Dinner is released through Icon Film Distribution Australia