Based on the bestselling Dutch novel by Herman Koch, The Dinner begins with a bold but improbable premise: Needing to assemble his wife, brother and sister-in-law to make a family decision of a particularly painful and private nature, a rising U.S. politician snags the party a much sought-after reservation at a fashionable restaurant. And so the building psycho-drama, more sensibly suited to a meeting in the living room, is regularly interrupted by a parade of waiters carrying a potage of honeynut squash, young winter roots garnished with burnt pumpernickel soil or gnocchi in a bed of foraged mushrooms.
The effect is intensely theatrical. Indeed, The Dinner would make a good play, a four-hander, as it’s called, in which the elaborate meal would act as a natural dramatic structure that would both propel and block the emotional action. But for all the potential unity of time and place offered by one evening in a temple of gastronomy, this adaptation of The Dinner is a film. And as such it moves, often awkwardly, between the hermetic world of the restaurant and the characters’ lives outside it.
Partly, it is a thriller: Scenes in the restaurant, a darkened place that director Oren Moverman envisages as palatial, forbidding and almost malevolent in atmosphere, alternate with events a few days earlier, a night on which the the family’s two teenage cousins commit a horrible crime. As the audience gradually learns the nature of the boys’ act, the parents at the restaurant debate whether they will cover it up, thereby saving the politician’s career and the boys’ future. So far, so good; Moverman establishes very effectively the link between the parents’ pretensions to civility and the boys’ descent into barbarism, leaving an audience as discomfited by the appearance of dessert as by the boys’ casual inhumanity.
What is much more difficult to fold naturally into this charged cinematic scenario is the sprawling psychological back story of the novel, which is told by the politician’s brother, Paul (Steve Coogan), an embittered high-school history teacher deeply resentful of the success of his brother, Stan (Richard Gere). Cynical to the point of paranoia, Paul was the novel’s unreliable narrator; here, his obsessive nattering is successfully captured in a few voice-over passages near the start of the film, but flashbacks explaining his problems as well as background about Stan’s first marriage feel painfully extraneous.
Writing the adaptation himself, Moverman has moved the action from Europe to the United States quite successfully; he has added a believable racial overtone to both the boys’ crime and their attitude toward Stan’s younger son, an adopted African-American who is a witness to the event. But the writer-director has also given the monomaniacal Paul a deep interest in the battle of Gettysburg, the turning point for Union forces during the U.S. Civil War, and, in the film’s least successful scenes, Paul and Stan visit the battlefield while the viewer is actually treated to excerpts of a visitor-centre video.
These contrived flashbacks would be unbearable if Coogan’s Paul were not such a fascinatingly well-portrayed character. All four central performances are strong: As Stan, Gere neatly captures the causal self-confidence of the career politician; as his sharp partner, Katelyn, Rebecca Hall delicately reveals a compromise between ambition and generosity that suggests the trophy wife’s story could easily carry a few more scenes. And as Paul’s supportive wife, Claire, Laura Linney offers just the right note of condescension towards her difficult husband and finesses her character’s sudden move to darkness late in the film.
But most of all, Coogan’s pinched Paul is a magnificently detailed portrait of a man whose intelligence and hurt give way to neurosis and depression as the actor paints many shades between eccentricity and mental illness. Coogan often includes a note of self-absorbed misanthropy in his comic work – playing a grumpy version of himself in The Trip and its spinoffs, for example – and here, he seems to simply strip the humour from those petty characters, as though in losing his English accent to play Paul, he had also lost his laughs.
Still, Paul is outlandish; The Dinner does have blackly funny elements, its bitter critique often hinting at comedy. Besides psychological drama, besides thriller, social satire is another significant element in this sometimes erratic film and it’s one that, surprisingly and belatedly, rises to the top: Anyone who started out thinking The Dinner was a thriller will probably be disappointed when the evening wraps up with an ending that is more farce than denouement.Report Typo/Error