THE DINNER – Review
Richard Gere stars as Stan Lohman, a congressman running for governor, who invites his brother Paul (Steve Coogan) and wife Claire (Laura Linney) to dine with him and his wife Kate (Rebecca Hall) at a very upscale restaurant. The brothers don’t get along and Paul does not want to go but his wife Claire is relishing the chance to have dinner at one of the town’s most exclusive restaurants. While the brothers are estranged, their 16-year-old sons Michael (Charlie Plummer) and Rick (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) are friends. It is something the boys did together, something awful, that Stan wants to talk about at this tense family dinner.
THE DINNER is a dramatic examination of how far one might go for family, as well as explorations of mental illness, crime and privilege. The tone starts out slightly comic, with Coogan’s historian character muttering sarcastically about his older politician brother, referring to his brother as an ape. Paul also throws in frequent references to the Civil War, the former history teacher’s area of specialization, particularly Gettysburg. But there is more to the family dynamics than old sibling issues. .
Oren Moverman directs and wrote the screenplay for this adaptation of Herman Koch’s bestselling novel. Moverman recently directed Gere in TIME OUT OF MIND, in which Gere plays a man whose alcoholism leads him to slip into homelessness, despite an earlier more-prosperous life. Moverman used the film to explore how the homeless are invisible in New York and other related issues, and the experience of being homeless.
Gere might be the bigger name in the credits but the acting showcase goes to Steve Coogan, as the emotional, sharp-tongued brother Paul. Coogan’s character more the center of the story, with Gere playing an emotionally cooler but controlling character.
The sections of this family drama are divided like courses of a meal, as they are in Koch’s book, and the restaurant service is almost the comic relief to this sometimes heated drama. The solicitous maitre d’ Dylan (Michael Chernus) presents a series of artistically-styled plates of artisan food, which are described in the kind of self-involved loving detail one expects in a restaurant where the price is inversely proportional to the amount of food on the plate. The dinner takes place on a cold, snowy night, reflecting the chilly feeling that often surrounds this family dinner.
The boys’ involvement in a horrendous crime plunges the family into a crisis that pits parental concerns against questions about right and wrong, about privilege and responsibility, and a host of social issues. Family dynamics, not just between the brothers over their childhood, complicate the issues around what the teens did. Michael is Claire and Paul’s only child. Rick is Stan’s son with his first wife Barbara (Chloe Sevigny), but the couple adopted two more children before they divorced, children that his second wife Kate is raising while Stan pursues his career. Part of the problem is the second, adopted son Beau (Miles J. Harvey), who sometimes tags along with the older teens, and seems to be the family tattletale. Paul dislikes the boy, but that dislike carries a racist undertone since Beau is black.
Coogan turns in a strong performance as troubled Paul. Paul barely has a filter and is likely to storm out of rooms, but his wife Claire tries to smooth things over. In the course of the film, we learn much more about Paul than the others but also get a good view of the complex family dynamics. Gere is also good in his more restrained role, playing Stan as a sincere, well-meaning man but one who has a paternalistic streak as well as a moralizing one. All three of the others eventually rebel against Stan’s efforts to summarily make the decision for all of them. Linney is good as Claire, but Rebecca Hall is a standout, as the complicated Kate. Following up her astounding performance in the less-seen CHRISTINE, one hopes to see her in more high-profile roles in the near future.
The drama is at its best in the ensemble scenes, with all four of these gifted actors engaged in throwing sparks. Periodically, Moverman takes the action away from the table, maybe to keep the film from feeling too stage-y, but the effect is to make the dinner feel endless. Some of these scenes, which include flashbacks, contribute to the emotional power, such as the ones with the homeless woman, played by Onika Day, bu not all do.
Like Moverman’s previous film with Gere, the homeless and mental illness are part of this story. Social issues are raised but not dealt with in great depth. The scenes of the boys, empowered by their sense of privilege, hurl taunts and then trash at a homeless woman, as if she were not human, are chilling but so is Claire’s attempts at justification, shifting blame to the woman sleeping in front of the ATM the boys wanted to use. Mental health issues get a little deeper look through Paul’s personal history and Stan’s commitment to legislation to treat mental health bills like other medical expenses.
The soundtrack is interesting, adding subtle themes under the drama, and ranges from Beethoven and Satie to Bob Dylan and Serge Gainsbourg. Particularly in one tense moment, Sati’s eerie, sadly haunting strains underlying the dialog adds an extra dimension of heartbreak as the parents discuss what decision is best for their children. All of them want the best outcome and future for their children but disagree greatly on what is the best thing to do.
Despite fine performance from its gifted cast and moments of riveting drama and suspense, THE DINNER is a mixed cinematic experience. Like the rarefied world of the restaurant in which it is set, it will not appeal to every taste.
RATING: 3 1/2 out of 5 stars