The main course of an evening out divides a troubled family at the seams, in The Dinner. When Stan Lohman (Richard Gere), a popular congressman running for governor, invites his troubled younger brother Paul (Steve Coogan) and his wife Claire (Laura Linney) to join him and his wife Katelyn (Rebecca Hall) for dinner at one of the town’s most fashionable restaurants, the stage is set for a tense night. While Stan and Paul have been estranged since childhood, their 16-year- old sons are friends, and the two of them have committed a horrible crime that has shocked the country. While their sons’ identities have not yet been discovered and may never be, their parents must now decide what action to take. As the night proceeds, beliefs about the true natures of the four people at the table are upended, relationships shatter, and each person reveals just how far they are willing to go to protect those they love. The Dinner is written and directed by Oren Moverman, and is rated R for disturbing violent content, and adult language throughout.
It’s evident to me the kind of movie that Oren Moverman was trying for in adapting the the popular novel from literature to the big screen. The concepts of our importance upon dining culture, as well as entrees that don’t completely satisfy the hunger of the company who dine on them, despite all of the time and attention to detail that went into their looks. It uses each of the seven dishes of the main course to convey a new chapter to where this story is headed, but everything flies off the rails so quickly that there’s rarely any structure to the film’s material. That bit that I explained about the design of food is the perfect edible metaphor to everything that The Dinner is and suffers from. This is very much a movie that wants to be an edge-of-the-seat thriller by the numbers, but is bogged down time-and-time again by terribly telegraphed flashback sequences that halt what should be the film’s central conflict from digesting smoothly. It’s almost impossible to screw a movie up this badly, especially considering the writer and director are the same person, limiting any kind of conflict in adapting two visions. This movie wasn’t just boring, but it allowed me the time to check up on all 13 Facebook notifications that were buzzing away at my phone while I decided to take this one in. It lacks excitement because far too many times it let me down with what could’ve been an enticing moral conundrum.
First of all is the visual presentation. Getting out of the way the single positive that I had for the movie is that of the luminous lighting and elegant backdrops that certainly depict a world of secrecy. It’s evident that the aura of this restaurant echoes that of the conversations that this family is about to take on; dark, ominous, and ever so quiet with all that they have hid away. That last compliment is also the first negative that I have for the film, as the sound mixing and editing is a little too good at its job. What I mean is that it never feels like we are there with these two couples inside of the restaurant because you don’t hear the chatter of other tables occupants despite it being a full house. I’m someone who watches film for realistic aspects of a movie, and a restaurant that quiet with that many people inside didn’t just add to my disbelief, it radiated it. The editing of the movie is also quite jarring and often times confusing to how much time has passed. Characters change positions a couple of times in the movie, contrasting the continuity of the previous shot that had them in one place and now has them in a complete other. The camera work continuously felt very shaky here, opting to slowly close-up and out frequently throughout the movie a shade quicker than the normal panning shot endures. Picture a Wayne’s World Extreme Close-Up for two hours. I’m sure you’ll just eat it up.
I commend the film’s writing for at least presenting the story boards in a novel kind of storytelling, complete with chapters and flashbacks that have us learning something new about our characters one piece at a time. The concept itself fails miserably however, as I found myself confused quite frequently at the pacing of each of these flashbacks. It’s funny because for the first two acts of the movie, these flashbacks are all over the place, often times overtaking the current day developments of this dinner scene that should serve as the foreground of the movie’s reveals. Then in the third act, they are no longer there, giving the movie a multi-writer feel for two completely opposite visions. I would’ve frankly been fine without any of the flashbacks, instead opting for this being a dialogue-driven movie that reveals what every character is hiding about the past. I’m not saying that flashbacks can’t work, but they have to be restrained so not to take over the foreground story that serves as the answer to the question. This rule isn’t even remotely followed, as there’s many examples that I can point to for proof, but I will choose one late in the second act that floored me for how it made the final cut. The movie stops to reveal a mental disease within one of our adult characters, and instead of cutting to the point, the movie gives us a figurative history lesson on this character that serves no point in the conflicts of these children, as well as a literal one in an actual history lesson about Gettysburg because this character is a history teacher. WOW!!!! The time invested into this sequence lasted for 18 minutes. At one point, there’s a flashback within a flashback, and it all confused me as to whether the adults left the restaurant and this was now modern day, or if we were still in the flashback. I couldn’t tell because it lasted so long. This was the very definition of padding to push this to two hours, and boy was it a challenge to not walk out.
The ending too was a huge slap in the face because our characters and accompanying film decide to take the easy route in tucking everything away as neat and tidy as possible, ignoring the obvious questions and conflicts that have just taken place in favor for reaching for that plot device with the conflict that their children face, which has since expired. The worst kind of movies are the ones that you walk out of mad. Not laughing at them, but genuinely mad. There’s a 95 minute decent movie somewhere in here that is dying to get out, but unfortunately it never capitalizes on the thriller aspect of its designated genre, instead opting out for a mental health study that frankly bored me to pieces. I’ve seen worse films in my life, but none with the kind of magic that was executed in this trailer for taking something so hollow on the inside and filling the audience with a sense of seductive sizzle for what was promised. As a writer Moverman left me underwhelmed, under-cooking every possible twist and turn for watered down execution.
I wish that were the worst part of it however, but then you have to understand the kind of characters that you spend two miserable hours with. The Dinner gave me that feeling of being a child and being punished for doing something bad by having to sit at the dinner table while my father and grandfather talked politics. There’s is something comically ironic to the politician of the group being easily the most honorable, and if that doesn’t open your eyes to the real winners here, nothing will. Steve Coogan delivers a terribly bland performance for a movie that basically revolves around him. I was tired of his ‘I’m smarter than you’ stick that got old fifteen minutes into the movie and made me question why I should put up with this for the long haul. As far as protagonists go, he is truly one of the most dreadful, and his lack of commitment to delivery is the kind of stuff that friends having a couple of drinks and laughs at a party are made of. As Claire and Katelyn, Linney and Hall are reduced to nothing more than table dressing for the main course of the dominant males in the movie, so their involvement in the film is nothing more than reactions for what develops. At least in Linney’s Claire there is a crossroads question for the audience in just how far they would go to protect their kids. Claire’s depths go to asinine levels, and any parent who justifies her reasoning will really make me wonder about your moral fiber. This table of everything that you hate about upper class self-pity will have you making reservations elsewhere, so just to not hear how difficult life really is.
THE VERDICT—-The Dinner overstuffs its audience with an overabundance of flashbacks and horribly written protagonists to favor it as one of the truly most mind-numbing experiences of film in 2017. There’s rarely anything on this menu that is remotely appealing, and as a directing chef Moverman the final dish of dessert with an ending that hammers home the fear that hits you early on that this is worst case scenario when it comes to the concept of book-to-film adaptations. Like most adolescent teens, I’m choosing to eat my dinner in the privacy of my bedroom, far away from any of this frustrating execution or bland personalities. (MIC DROP)