Most families who fight save their unpleasant gatherings for the holidays. In The Dinner, however, it takes a homicide to bring the gang together for an evening of bitterness and outdoor voices. The fancy restaurant that two estranged brothers and their respective wives go to may as well be called Pick Your Poison. By the end of the evening, an array of food porn is presented, but all you’ll taste is bile.
Writer-director Oren Moverman’s film—which was to be helmed by Cate Blanchett—is the third time Herman Koch’s 2009 novel has been adapted into a feature. Did the world need yet another theatrical version of this ugly story? Not especially, unless you’re among the filmgoers who are averse to subtitles and/or believe that Hollywood should cash in on every juicy tale that first graces foreign screens.
Koch posited The Dinner as a what-would-you-do? conversation starter. There is no love lost between former high school teacher Paul (Steve Coogan, appropriately peevish) and gubernatorial candidate Stan (Richard Gere, appropriately political), brothers who grew up in a fractured home. Though it’s initially unclear what Paul is reciting in his head at the beginning of the film, eventually it’s revealed—through scenes, if not words—that Paul suffered a mental break during a class and has not returned to his profession. His wife Claire (Laura Linney) takes care to shield her husband from any stress brought on by their teenage son Michael (Charlie Plummer).
But Michael is friends with his cousins, Stan’s sons Rick (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) and Beau (Miles J. Harvey). And Stan, along with his wife, Katelyn (Rebecca Hall), invites Paul and Claire to dine at a posh restaurant so that they can talk about the crime Paul is unaware that Michael and Rick committed. Michael confessed to his mother the night it happened. It’s unclear when Stan and Katelyn found out. Claire, however, is privy to a fact even more shocking than the violent act: Beau posted the video the other two took online and is now blackmailing his cousin.
Beau is African-American and adopted, but why these facts matter is either a question mark or a stretch. Either way, his existence in the story makes Koch, who is reportedly unhappy with Moverman’s take, look like the Trump of novelists. His importance to the plot is a long time coming, though. Before that, it’s almost all about Paul, by far the most unpleasant person in the film, though the novel gives him better competition. He goes from ornery yet slightly sympathetic (“I’m not drinking something that expensive. It’s fucking wrong”) to wild-eyed and, as Michael says, about to “spin out.” He does not take the news about the situation very well.
But in The Dinner, everyone gets their turn to be vile. It’s rare that all four of them are at the table at the same time: Katelyn storms out, Paul storms out, Claire goes after Katelyn, and Stan’s assistant (Adepero Oduye) keeps interrupting him with urgent phone calls. Ironically, it’s the politician with the best moral compass here. And Moverman seems to soften Claire a bit from the clear sociopath she is in the book. Is she a lioness protecting her cub, or a cretinous, inhuman being? Does she prefer Paul when he’s sick, or did she just think his medication was turning him into a zombie? And where does Michael fit in?
Regardless of their characters’ motives, Coogan, Linney, and Hall bite into their roles with ferocity. But the acting, while impressive, is not exactly enjoyable. Further, Moverman embellishes flashbacks a little too theatrically, particularly a scene in which Stan and Paul take a walking tour of Gettysburg—this memory turns into a too-long tangent. And when you get to the chaotic, abrupt end, you’ll wonder if there was a projection hiccup. You’ll leave the theater confused, but likely not wanting more.
The Dinner opens Friday at Landmark Bethesda Row and the Angelika Film Center.