On paper, The Dinner has all the elements to give it the potential to be one of my favorite films of the year. Writer/Director Oren Moverman has been behind some treasures, including Love & Mercy, which were put together with a style that displayed a talented voice. I can’t get enough of Steve Coogan or Laura Linney, and Richard Gere and Rebecca Hall certainly aren’t turning me off a production. It’s also a film with hardly anyone in it, which I love. Most importantly, it’s an intriguing premise based on the Herman Koch novel. Nevertheless, the best notes seem lost in translation, and it doesn’t quite come together, apparently as a result of an overabundance of effort.
The movie revolves, obviously, around an evening meal, and every new piece of information the film feeds you makes it an even more uncomfortable experience. Paul (Coogan) and Stan (Gere) are brothers, and they have been estranged for much of their lives, despite occasionally being forced together. Paul is a retired High School teacher who had to move away from his job after some mental episodes that required he start taking meds to keep his personality in check. He’s smart, somewhat misanthropic, and irritated by most aspects of society in general. Stan (Gere) is a politician who is currently running for Governor. Being a politician at all is enough for Paul to see Stan as a convenient stand-in for everything he doesn’t like.
Paul’s wife, Claire (Linney), has seen Paul through his difficulties, part of which stem from her battle with cancer years ago, which largely left Paul raising his son while losing a battle with despair. Stan’s wife, Katelyn (Hall), is his second, and she has her own set of first-world problems, like raising three children that aren’t hers while their father is never around.
The brothers are forced together because there’s a conversation they need to have. Though they can hardly stand being in the same room, their sons are friends, and it turns out that they’ve committed a crime that, while they have not been identified, has gone viral and sparked immense outrage from the public.
While that seems straightforward, the story weaves through much of the brothers’ lives, by way of flashback, pitting the disturbing, depressing, dysfunction of their lives against the backdrop of the fanciest restaurant, and meal, imaginable. The food itself is just another irritant to Paul, who believes food of such a caliber is a nonsensical waste, and he’d rather go for a pizza. That they are at this restaurant, at Stan’s behest, is one more brick in the onslaught of passive-aggressive commentary Paul perceives as being directed at him by his brother.
As the movie rolls on, methodically piecing together the backgrounds of our characters, it quickly becomes an effort as depressing as the morass it’s trying to untangle. It’s absolutely engrossing, as a general premise, and there isn’t a flaw in the acting to be found, including Michael Chernus as the maître d (or whatever fancier title probably exists at this level). What you know for sure at the end is that the book must be amazing, but the adaptation to an American setting, and the directing choices that assume audiences are a bit dull, suck most of the power out of the wonderful examination of life, relationships, and the simple fact that no one wants to pay attention to the idea that there is any struggle at all… no matter what’s happening.
For every insightful, calculated moment that reveals a character in a way that is almost bizarrely relatable, there is a scene that endlessly self-explains, or drags on needlessly, or belabors the obvious, which turns the whole affair unbelievable. Overall, the story is brutally honest, and delivers a much-needed look at the underpinnings of personality. Within any of the various encounters (live or flashback), the film moves us through fascinating details of interpersonal existence. The things we fixate on. The dishonesty inherent in any kind of sense of self. The shock at both moral wavering and steadfastness. It all becomes even more powerful simply by staring at the fact that no one talks about anything until they are forced to, without quite mentioning that idea.
It should not only manage to capture all audiences, but demand to be watched repeatedly. Instead, the tone and pacing constantly shift through episodes that are overworked. We return repeatedly to “the crime,” and each time to stare at longer clips of it so that the movie can nudge us while Paul’s son twirls his mustache again, because it isn’t sure we’re really taking in the scope of the thing. The flashbacks of Paul’s life are all ten beats too long, and his son is given lines far too over-the-top to seem like a realistic play between any father and son, much less this pair. Most of these problems feel born out of a misguided attempt to write backwards, which is decidedly odd when adapting a book. We have a place we need to get to, so these characters must say and do these things, whether these characters would say and do them or not.
It’s still well worth seeking out, even if only to take part in the last fifteen minutes, which suddenly reveals everything about the characters, and perhaps too much about ourselves, but it lands as a film that doesn’t believe in itself enough and believes in you not at all.