A look at how far parents will go to protect their children. Based on a novel by Herman Koch.
“How much do you know?” – Claire Lohman, “The Dinner”
That’s the central question of director Oren Moverman’s latest exploration of class separation and human ethics. How much do you know your brother, your wife, your children? How much do you know about the poor, the privileged, and wealthy? “The Dinner”’s selfish characters’ priorities, their morals and ethics, are distorted, reflecting the worst tendencies in all of us. Reuniting with Richard Gere after directing him in the sublime “Time Out of Mind” (read the review here), Moverman structures the less-successful but ambitious film like a chamber-piece-cum-mystery-thriller, under the guise of a talky drama. “The Dinner” takes its time unfolding, peeling off layer after layer of tinted glass until a picture crystallizes…only you may want to avert your eyes.
After a startling opening, which cuts from ambient images to a hip-hop-scored sequence of youth partying, we meet history professor and writer Paul Lohman (Steve Coogan), by listening in on his borderline-demented thoughts. Acerbic and hateful, Paul doesn’t want to go to THE dinner and “meet these apes,” yet his wife Claire (Laura Linney) insists – it’s a very exclusive restaurant, after all. “These apes” turn out to be his brother, congressman Stan Lohman (Gere), who’s running for governor, and his loyal wife Katelyn (Rebecca Hall). The restaurant is indeed quite exquisite, gold-plated columns and all – though their first table ends up too noisy and they switch to a quieter room. Character backgrounds unravel, as they all dance around the tense, “real reason” why they are here – their sons, and something awful they did.
Split into six roughly 20-minute sections – Aperitif, Appetizer, Main Course, Dessert, and Digestif – the film’s structure mirrors the Lohmans’ meal, described in great detail by their waiter, Dylan (Michael Chernus). Frequent flashbacks interrupt the dinner to show us the lead-up: sons Michael (Charlie Plummer) and Rick (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) committing the horrific act, as well as Michael’s troubled upbringing and the Lohmans’ consequent handling of the issue. Moverman’s trademark themes of elitism vs idealism, societal clashes, parenthood, familial resentment, deep trauma/mental illness and homelessness – are on full display: Paul, obsessed with Gettysburg and all things war, believes in shedding blood for the greater good, while Stan may be willing to sacrifice his own future to do what’s morally right.
Coogan has long since shifted gear from his comedic Alan Partridge persona, and here displays a range only hinted at before. By turns bitter, sarcastic, morose, self-loathing, literate, his character has no filter. When they toast to their wives and children at the start of the catastrophic dinner, he drily adds, “To getting through this dinner in one piece.” He is resentful of his brother but proud of his work; he loves his kids but happens to be a terrible father… Does his wife’s sickness haunt him, the guilt preventing him from drawing boundaries for his son?
Laura Linney is incapable of delivering a bad performance and here again is the epitome of calm and class, counterbalancing her husband, at one point literally preventing him from slapping himself. Yet an unraveling corrosiveness is lurking underneath that tranquil exterior, a blissful ignorance bordering on pure evil. Gere and Hall get smaller, less meatier role, but still shine, the former’s Stan insecure underneath all that composure, and the latter’s Katelyn a bubble about to burst. Since I’m discussing acting, I have to give a special shout-out to the great Michael Chernus in the small-but-crucial (and very funny) role as Dylan Heinz, the waiter.
Moverman knows his way around a scene. “The Dinner” may not be greater than the sum of its parts, but what parts they are! Katelyn prematurely joins Paul and Claire at the dinner table and makes awkward conversation, as her popular husband shakes hands with everyone inside (“Sometimes it’s very hard to avoid people.”) Coogan reads about the Gettysburg weapons, his focused, dark thoughts barely audible, blending in with a hilariously light dialogue (interestingly, Moverman does venture into that Altman-esque voice overlap thing quite frequently here). An exchange outside the restaurant between Paul and his son ends with Michael telling his dad to “shut the fuck up” and calling him a “fucking child.” Another memorable sequence has Paul screaming, “May I please have your fucking attention?” at his class, before proceeding to talk about their miserable lives and the importance of wars.
“The Dinner” is filled with so many biting exchanges, it at times makes you feel like you’re having dinner with your own relatives, albeit a highly intense one. “I love you too, I really do,” Paul says blankly to his wife. “It’s pretty much unbearable.” He goes on later, describing his scrumptious meal: “You taste the war and plagues and fire-bombings, lightly dressed with a drizzle of famine, polished off with some volcanic eruptions.” There is a car scene that stuck out to me. Stan and Paul sit there, sharing a rare relatively peaceful moment with each other. “There’s no shame in getting help, Paul,” Stan says, to which Paul retorts, “there’s help in getting shame.” “Am I causing you shame?” Stan wonders. “You’re shaming my cause.” It then dawns on Stan. “Are you just gonna flip every sentence I say?” Paul grins. “I’m just gonna say every sentence you flip.”
The film does occasionally stumble, so eager to get its point across, so overwhelmed by its own ambition, it forgets coherence. The flashbacks are a bit jarring, the Civil War references are a bit too much – particularly evident in an acid-tinged, off-kilter, ear-splitting sequence that hammers the point home and becomes too artsy and psychedelic, like something out of a Ben Wheatley film. Moverman’s script becomes too talky/expository at points, in stark contrast to his laconic “Time Out of Mind.” Though “The Dinner” starts off with a bang, it becomes increasingly, both tonally and stylistically, jarring. It would have almost worked better if it completely confined itself to the restaurant, like Polanski’s underrated “Carnage” did – just four characters and an apartment. Go full-theatrical, man. As it stands, “The Dinner” gradually slips into overindulgence, drunk on its own aperitif, running around in circles, especially in its latter part.
But that’s okay. It’s still well-worth seeing. It remains a grim reflection of the ethics behind contemporary politics, an incisive character study and a fantastic showcase for its tremendous cast. Bobby Bukowski’s cinematography recalls “Time Out of Mind”’s jarring-but-gorgeous use of color and framing. Though he should scale back next time, I’m glad Moverman is still making those kinds of psychologically probing films, bound to be discussed with relatives and friends, ad nauseam, over dinner. How much DO you know about them, after all?
In select theaters Friday, May 5th