MOVIE REVIEW: The Dinner
“THE DINNER”-- 2 STARS
More often than not, the label of “private family matter” spells doom and gloom. A good time is not going to be had. That’s the unfortunate impetus that brings two disunified brothers and their wives together for “The Dinner.” Compressing layers of familial discontent and rancor thinly-masked by the repulsive worst of white privilege, the tightly-wound urgency and shattering purpose of this titular meeting reveals itself over the film’s two hours. Put your napkin in your lap and dig in.
Steve Coogan tries on a prickly American accent to play Paul Lohman, a colossally neurotic and overserious cynic and pessimist who works as a history teacher and is married to his cancer-surviving wife Claire (Laura Linney). The two share a disillusioned and detached 16-year-old son Michael (Charlie Plummer). They have been invited to a lavish dinner by his brother Stan Lohman (Richard Gere), a respected congressman on his own gubernatorial campaign trail, and his trophy second wife Katelyn (Rebecca Hall). It is a meeting Claire is a little giddy for and Paul is completely dreading.
Based on Herman Koch’s novel, “The Dinner” peels back multiple threads of flashback covering several fronts. Laboriously, they disseminate the contentious history between Paul and Stan, their mutual marriages, and, most disturbingly, the details of monstrous and undiscovered crime committed by Michael and Stan’s son Rick (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick). The present night is broken up into chapters titled by the courses of the dinner from aperitif to digestif, where these four adults peck and pry at their blackened hearts to the beat of a foreboding and acidic dirge. This becomes the kind of table scene where each character leaves the room at least once in haughty outrage or disgust in moments of awkward or hurtful personal attacks.
The “Primal Fear” reunion of Gere and Linney constitutes the headliners, but Steve Coogan is the lead voice and perspective in “The Dinner.” Every rant and rave of Paul’s internal and external monologues of biting social commentary stem from his fractured mental state. Coogan shines to compose an impressive complicated performance around his character’s flaws and fears, easily wrestling the film away from his co-stars.
However, it’s a problematic imbalance in a narrative that begs for equal performance attention. Gere’s character is pulled away by business often and misses the best body blow exchanges thrown by others until late in the meal and film. True to their best acting traits, Laura Linney and Rebecca Hall can always be counted on to turn a smirking line reading of a broken pleasantry into an outright release of vitriol and hate in a matter of seconds.
Even those moments of devilish delight are few and far between in the soft thriller. They are diluted by the high maintenance required to weather the Paul character that flood the narrative. Though fleshed out with intricate detail by writer/director Oren Moverman (“Love and Mercy”), Paul is the wrong point of focus and he completely saps the underlying catalyst and heavily divergent parental decisions facing the four central characters. With a scarce amount of comeuppance or summation to make us care, far too much time is spent beating around the bush swirling in Paul’s head rather than addressing the real elephant in the room. A meal this rich shouldn’t be this empty.
LESSON #1: THE CONTEMPTUOUS TEEN DEMOGRAPHIC OF WHITE PRIVILEGE-- “The Dinner” presents us with an increasingly prevalent example of silver spoon white males with a warped worldview who abuse vices and others through bullying and other violent outlets. Michael is one of those types who obliviously act with little regard for others or the consequences of his actions because money from disposable income or his parents can always bail him out. More on that next.
LESSON #2: THE PARENTAL FAILURES OF ENABLING AND MODELING WHITE PRIVILEGE-- The parents in this film have no one to blame but themselves, yet tout the “I want what’s best for my children” mantras. They operated family environments of materialistic affection and purchased solutions and never held themselves or their children entirely accountable for the proper responsibilities for their actions. Now that the grown adults have reached this tipping point of “what would you do to defend your family” with their wallets out and exasperated shoulders shrugged, their front is not unified and selfish to the core.