The meal in The Dinner is costly both in terms of the price for the food, and for the emotional and physical toll it has on the characters. However, in adapting Dutch author Herman Koch’s novel, director/co-writer Oren Moverman gives viewers too little to chew over.
Paul (Steve Coogan) and Claire (Laura Linney) are preparing to meet his brother Stan (Richard Gere), a congressman running for Governor and his wife Katelyn (Rebecca Hall) for a fancy meal. This is not a friendly get together; the couples are planning to discuss a sticky legal situation involving their sons.
Paul doesn’t want to go, but Claire insists. When Stan and Katelyn arrive, he is distracted by phone calls and demands of his campaign. Throughout the meal, the various characters keep excusing themselves to deal with an outside crisis that is distracting them from getting to the matter at hand.
This approach may be Moverman’s way of building dramatic tension, but The Dinner only sparks when the character finally address the moral situation that has brought them together. For the film’s first 90 minutes, there are a number of scenes that are meant to provide depth to the characters, and keep the film from being stagy. However, these scenes largely feel artificial. Moverman’s efforts to stylize these scenes are distracting.
One overlong subplot reveals, through a series of clumsy flashbacks, that Paul is dealing with mental issues. A history teacher, he had a breakdown in his classroom. A scene of him getting angry at a shop owner whose window was broken is supposed to define his character, but it seems superfluous. Likewise, an extended episode with Paul and Stan at Gettysburg creates an obvious metaphor.
The Dinner lumbers along as the characters, Paul especially, behave badly. This makes it difficult to care about the moral conundrum that eventually comes to light. It is revealed that the couples’ sons were involved in a crime that could very well send them to prison.
How the action plays out, with a debate about what is the best way to handle the situation, is compelling, and Claire and Katelyn each speak their minds, raising interesting issues about loyalty to family and spouses.
Yet the performances are most uneven. Gere alternates between quietly stern and shouty, while Hall has too little to do until her big speech near the end. Coogan gets the showiest role, and while he does well spewing bitter lines in his American accent, he seems somewhat miscast here. Arguably, the best performance belongs to Linney in mama bear/Lady Macbeth mode. Throughout the film Claire tries to keep the peace and protect her son and husband with mixed results. Watching Linney convey Claire’s initial optimism devolving into despair is the film’s biggest asset.
The Dinner could have been a meatier drama but instead, like the small, pricey meal the characters share, it will leave viewers hungry for something more.
The Dinner opens in Philly theaters today.