“To getting through this dinner in one piece.”
Just how far does a parent’s love go? More importantly, how far should it go? Oren Moverman’s adaptation of Herman Koch’s novel, The Dinner, could have asked that question boldly. Instead, audiences are served a chamber piece that refuses to stick to the damn table. While the opening credits are reminiscent of the gorgeously haunting montages from NBC’s Hannibal, the dinner itself isn’t really of note. It’s the back stories that the film constantly cuts to that take precedence of the proceedings.
The titular meal takes place at an Haute cuisine establishment where two estranged brothers and their wives gather to discuss something reserved for discretion. The kind of discretion only afforded in an upscale eatery where the servers tend not to gossip. Paul Lohman (Steve Coogan) and Claire Lohman (Laura Linney)’s son, Michael, and Stan Lohman (Richard Gere) and Katelyn (Rebecca Hall)’s boys, Rick and Bo, have committed a crime. Something so heinous that Stan, the loquacious congressman, is taking a hiatus from his campaign for Governor to discuss what must be done. On a good day, history buff Paul compares dinner with his brother to Homo sapiens sharing a meal with Hominids. This conversation could be a vise-grip of tension between two couples who clearly have a mixed past, but the script is more concerned with a mystery box narrative.
Revelations are brought to light regarding Paul’s mental state, Stan’s fidelity, and Claire’s hospitalization, yet the characters go to great lengths to avoid talking about the event that brought them to the dinner table. Then a heavily-stylized impromptu history lesson of the battle of Gettysburg is thrown in as a plodding metaphor. Paul pretends to be the compassionate sibling, but his facade is cracking. War is his natural state, putting everyone who cared about him at odds. The violence simmers between the Lohmans with each glance, aided by cinematographer Bobby Bukowski, who pitches everything in a primal red light or sickly yellows.
This sort of caustic humor has worked before in films like Carnage, though Carnage didn’t repeatedly go off on different tangents every six minutes. There’s no real investment in any scene because at any moment there could be a flashback sending any momentum to a screeching halt. An ounce of restraint in keeping the camera in the dining room would’ve done the film, and its cast, wonders. Left to their own devices, Gere, Hall, Linney and Coogan could have rivaled some of the richest black comedy in ages. That the script attempts to offer any redemption to these ugly people is truly mind-bending. Such toxicity oozing through their every motivation should automatically discount such courtesy.
Steve Coogan’s prowess at playing a man hampered by mental illness comes as a welcome surprise. Paul is ready to climb up on the cross and bang the nails into his arms, but not without committing a few more atrocities. Stan is haunted by failing his own brother, but that certainly doesn’t stop him from worrying about how doing the right thing now might affect being elected. Not to be left out in the cold, Laura Linney and Rebecca Hall pounce on the third act with relish. Claire and Katelyn are reserved throughout much of the film, but then the dynamic between the four characters switches suddenly in the third act, leaving both actresses ample time to chew scenery. Linney’s transformation at the end of The Dinner rivals her work in Mystic River. If the film didn’t fall apart completely regarding rhythm, it would make for the type of compelling adult dramas that are rarely seen in cineplexes anymore. Wasting actors of this caliber on such dreck is unforgivable.