An observation while watching The Dinner is how little of it actually takes place at dinner. Every time the four main characters try to enjoy their meal, one of them gets up and the conversation halts. So, too, does the flow of the movie. And therefore the quality of the movie. In fact, it’s hard to tell who’s more distracted – the characters who can’t sit still, or writer/director Oren Moverman’s story, which is all over the place and only occasionally moves in the direction it’s supposed to move: forward.
The premise, based on a book by Herman Koch, is intriguing: Misanthrope Paul (Steve Coogan) is dreading having dinner at a posh restaurant with his brother Stan (Richard Gere) and Stan’s wife, Katelyn (Rebecca Hall). Paul’s wife, Claire (Laura Linney), is more reasonable about the invitation, citing Stan’s willingness to pay and the importance Stan emphasized when asking to have the dinner.
It turns out Stan has good reason: A short time ago, Stan’s son Rick (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) and Paul’s son, Michael (Charlie Plummer), assaulted a homeless woman inside a glass-enclosed ATM kiosk. It’s the kind of thing that dumb, spoiled and entitled rich kids do, and sadly sometimes get away with, which is really the central dilemma here: Should the parents allow their children to get away with it, knowing prison time is the likely alternative? Complicating matters are Stan’s political aspirations and Paul’s mental instability.
As a creative flourish, Moverman includes the stages of the meal with on-screen titles (from “aperitif” to “digestif”), but in no way does this reflect the content or themes of the film. In a better movie, these stages would’ve been indicative of the pace of the story. But there is no pace to the story. Moverman is so all over the place with Stan’s distractions, Paul’s personal history and even Stan’s ex-wife’s (Chloe Sevigny) story that the reason Stan wanted the dinner in the first place – to discuss their sons’ crime – is buried in a second-act reveal that is gradually (i.e. undramatically) exposed.
This is a lot of teasing and distraction for nominal payoff. (It seems the author of the book that’s the source material here agrees: Koch did not attend the afterparty when the film screened at the 2017 Berlin Film Festival because – get this – he hated the movie.)
The personalities of the characters don’t help matters, and that’s especially troubling when the story is driven by those characters at the dinner table (plus all the distracting flashbacks). Paul, in particular, is a miserable human being.
One will naturally wonder if Steve Coogan being a comedian means he’s out of his league in his dramatic role here, and that’s possible but too simplistic. Coogan may been have trying so hard to veer away from comedy that he delves too deep into drama, and in doing so makes Paul completely unlikeable. But in fairness, his dialogue – which is not Coogan’s creation – doesn’t give Paul any endearing qualities, only sympathetic ones. We end up pitying and despising Paul, which is not ideal for a focal character.
The real shame in The Dinner not being better is that there’s a dearth of high-quality independent dramas hitting theaters these days, and that’s a problem for people who crave content outside of the mainstream. Here’s hoping such misfortune will not continue as we venture into the escapist summer months.
THE DINNER (2) Directed by Oren Moverman •Starring Richard Gere, Laura Linney, Steve Coogan • Rated R •120 min. •At Osio Theater