All words: Alan Pyke
For about 90 minutes, The Dinner twines its yarn intelligently and gracefully. The Dinner is a two-hour movie.
Paul (Steve Coogan) is a history teacher with a dark wit and a nihilistic temperament, who has a cancer-survivor wife named Claire (Laura Linney). His brother Stan (Richard Gere) is a congressman seeking the governor’s mansion – he’s slick and officious, exuding importance – which helps explain why his wife Kate (Chloe Sevigny) is so chilly toward him.
Their sons have done something. It must be talked about. Resolved.
Stan chooses the venue for this adult sparring: a self-importantly lavish restaurant with an obsequious maitre-dis (Patriot’s Michael Chernus), first introduced in the opening titles montage through extreme closeups and strangled cello squalls that turn haute cuisine into something horrifying. What unfurls over the rest of director Oren Moverman’s adaptation of Herman Koch’s novel is edgy, taut, gripping – until it isn’t anymore.
Like most of us who believe ourselves charming curmudgeons, Coogan’s Paul is in fact a giant asshole. Like most giant assholes, he has his reasons. Coogan’s excellent performance gets main billing in the screenplay, but his three fellow leads match him punch for punch. Linney is particularly excellent in a similarly thankless set of responsibilities to the film.
The psychodrama wears its political thematics more subtly than most recent examples of films that chase the buzz-dragon of social media conversations about society. In its best moments, Moverman’s work is fine machinery that invites us along into a complex-seeming story without ever telling us what to think.
Its best moments are stacked up at the outset of the thing. Cinematographer Bobby Bukowski’s camera takes pains to keep Coogan and Linney separate, framing distance into their relationship from their first introduction. As the two play-argue about Coogan’s sudden resolution that “I’m not going” to the titular dinner (Linney is all sugar and wry appreciation for her husband’s dour bent). It’s a loving scene on the page; on the screen, Bukowski’s lens tries like the devil to keep them separate, cutting between separate close shots of each and initially showing them in the same frame only via Coogan’s reflection in a vanity mirror.
Eventually, as Linney coaxes Coogan out of his false-bottomed ultimatum about skipping dinner with “those maggots,” he rushes in reflexively to help fasten wife’s jewelry. The two share the frame, and a kiss, and cooing. Their affection seems to conquer the cinematic craft that wants them isolated.
For Gere and Sevigny, however, Overman and Bukowski invert the formula: They are introduced together in a double-shot, but the gulf between their separate bucket seats in a sedan feels miles wide. Sevigny is gazing out her window, Gere silently but plaintively toward his wife. He reaches a hand out for her across the empty middle of the frame but finds her unwilling to take it. The camera never moves or cuts. The actors play icy, the camera frame imprisoning them together.
Once inside the restaurant, the four quickly illustrate how happy they are to find conflict in even the tiniest things. They haven’t even come close to the dark subject at hand before arguments about changing tables and whatnot blow a toxic cloud across the dinner.
The story unfurls mostly in flashbacks, fostering certain impressions of who each of these people is and then gradually undermining them. Overman gradually pushes the crossfader of your sympathies across from Paul and Stan, from Claire to Kate, then wipes it back again. Supported by simple, elegant cinematography and smart sound design – Paul’s constant internal monologue often continues quietly behind the conversations other characters have – the film very nearly reaches greatness.
Sadly, all the artistic flare, delicate pacing, and careful writing of the first two-thirds of the film evaporates from The Dinner’s final act, like fumes from those blowtorches that fancy cocktail bars like to use to justify their prices. The conversation that resolves it all is heavy-handed, trading the graceful mechanics of the first 90 minutes for on-the-nose dialog. Someone actually says “affluenza.”
The result is a mish-mash abstraction of bitter modern questions, none simple. Questions about upper class discontent, mental illness, racism, how parents hand psychological violence down through generations. It’s half slick and smart, half subtle as a crowbar to the nose.
Maybe you’re bored of these topics. Maybe the idea of a family drama that tugs at the difference between simple racial prejudice and outright racial resentment seems exhausting. Maybe it grates to think Hollywood has greenlit another navel gaze about the rich bastards of America’s upper crust.
Perhaps a brutal vivisection of rich white dysfunction set in an exclusive, obnoxious restaurant where the only black characters serve as plot pivots rather than human beings strikes you as an ugly reinforcement of the cultural setting of such characters, and not the wicked lampooning of both the people and the setting that it is. Skip it, then, if you must, but you’ll cheat yourself of something that’s become rare in American movies: a story well shown, under-told, artfully constructed, and subtly built.
The Dinner’s topic area may is ultimately trite, even tired. But it’s rare as hell to see a flick treat it with such intelligence, subtlety, and artful filmmaking technique.