‘The Dinner’ Gets Distracted From its Main Course

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The Dinner

Sometimes we just bite the bullet and do what we don’t necessarily want to do when it comes to our family. That may include attending a social function or having those difficult, awkward conversations. In the film from writer-director Oren Moverman, The Dinner, a quartet gathers for a dinner that will see them each rehashing old wounds while opening up a few new ones over the course of a fine dining experience. The Dinner has moments where it has a sharp bite, one that cuts through the false pleasantries exchanged at first. But The Dinner turns sour when it abandons the eponymous meal and gets distracted with a series of flashbacks intended to add depth to the character dynamics but winds up taking the story away from its most interesting aspects.

Paul Lohman (Steve Coogan), a history teacher, and his wife Claire (Laura Linney) are about to leave for an evening of fine dining with Paul’s brother Stan (Richard Gere), a congressman, and his wife Katelyn (Rebecca Hall). There’s a bit of class resentment between Paul his politician brother, and Paul really isn’t looking forward to an evening of extravagance sitting across from his brother. While the dinner party exchanges insults and barbs at one another, including between the married couples, Stan is distracted by trying to whip up a vote count for a piece of pending legislation that he has sponsored. All of the issues hashed out over dinner are secondary to the issues that they’re forced to confront over the horrific actions of their children. What their teenage sons have done has been caught on tape and will have repercussions that will reverberate throughout their professional and personal lives.

Oren Moverman’s adaptation of the novel by Herman Koch starts out strong with Paul and Claire debating the merits of the forthcoming dinner, and Paul displaying a caustic wit that looks down upon his peers. There’s a lot of tension once the characters are seated at their tables. A number of unspoken moments from the past are constantly teased and raise the stakes for the impending confrontation. Then the flashbacks start to happen and The Dinner quickly loses its flavor. The flashbacks range from Stan and Paul dealing with the latter coping with a form of mental illness to Paul struggling to raise his young son while Claire battle cancer in the hospital. There are also flashbacks involving Stan’s first wife (Chloë Sevigny) and the friction that carried over from one marriage to the next. They’re each moments that don’t require the intimacy and detail of the scenes as presented and really would be much more effective had they simply been suggested.

What each member of the dinner party’s children have done presents a fascinating moral dilemma that the film waits too long to effectively tackle. I won’t give away the details of what the teenagers have done, but it’s a horrendous and unforgivable act. Flashbacks once again underserve the story so that we’re aware too many of the details of the crime before certain characters, somewhat undermining what could’ve been quite the powerful revelation for both the audience and the characters. By the time The Dinner reaches its conclusion, it’s painfully obvious that a number of fascinating thematic threads about class and parenthood are left dangling.

Compounding the underwhelming nature of this moral quandary the film presents is the fact that the young actors hired for their roles (Charlie Plummer, Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick, and Miles J. Harvey) are in over their head compared to talented veterans playing their parents. It’s not the fault of these young actors as the script just fails these youths as characters and never can get beyond their angst-ridden façade of adolescence. As with everything else in The Dinner, the flashbacks fail to provide any substantial depth to their motivations or personalities, and each of the teens come off as nothing more than mopey, selfish teens – which they very well may be but there’s nothing present to make us further understand that. The film’s entire dramatic weight hinges on the teenage sons and their actions and no quartet of talented actors can rescue The Dinner from its undercooked young characters.

The Dinner is constantly on the verge of becoming a compelling black comedy with strong dramatic overtones yet can’t sustain itself for a solid two hours. The headlining cast delivers phenomenal work, with Steve Coogan providing the film with its standout performance. By trying to switch up its locations and narrative flow with a number of flashbacks breaks up the film when it’s at its most compelling, something from which it never recovers. The Dinner serves up an interesting main course, but it seems like the filmmakers want you to fill up on bread first.

The Dinner
  • Overall Score
2.5

Summary

A fascinating story of a moral dilemma within a family, The Dinner undermines itself constantly with a barrage of underwhelming flashbacks that dilute the film’s dramatic potency at every turn despite four strong lead performances.

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