Screenwriter/director of "The Dinner", Oren Moverman, has moved the setting of Herman Koch's best-selling novel, on which his film is based, from Holland to America. Moverman wished to create a more dramatic than satirical tone --- a shift with greater meaning for American audiences.
Paul Lohman (Steve Coogan) and his wife, Claire (Laura Linney) are getting dressed for dinner with Paul's older brother, Stan (Richard Gere) and his second wife, Katelyn (Rebecca Hall). Paul is lamenting the fact that he loathes fancy restaurants, especially the uber-pretentious one chosen by Stan. He tries, in vain, to convince Claire to skip the outing and just have pizza at home instead. But Claire is anxious to experience the promised gastronomical delights --- and dinner is on.
Paul and Claire arrive before Stan and his entourage. He's a well-liked congressman now running for governor, a fact which Paul finds utterly distasteful. He has always resented his big brother, believing that their mother loved Stan best.
But this evening is not about the food, really, although each course --- there are six in all --- is presented with great flourish by the restaurant staff. Stan has organized this get-together for the four adults to discuss a heinous act committed by his oldest son, Rick (Seamus
Davey-Fitzpatrick) and Paul and Claire's only child, Michael (Charlie Plummer). And, before the dinner concludes, the question arises --- how far are you willing to go to protect your child?
Moverman has definitely hammered a few of the hot-topic buttons in today's political climate, most notably privilege --- especially for upper middle-class white boys, and deep-seated racial tensions. The adults grapple with their sons' "accident", while the audience watches, many horrified, that excuses are being made for their abhorrent behavior.
It's fascinating to witness the power plays taking place, especially between Claire and Stan. One would assume a politician running for a higher office would be the first to attempt a cover-up. Stan, and his ever-faithful assistant, Nina (Adepero Oduye), are entrenched in the passage of a mental health bill throughout the entire evening. So interruptions abound, as tensions rise and unsavory choices are made.
Gere, Linney and Hall are as engrossing as always. Each has multiple successes racked up in their careers, and they are superb. Mostly silent Katelyn screaming across the table at Paul is a sight to behold, while Claire purrs at Paul to calm down. Claire seems to want to get along and just enjoy her over-the-top dining extravaganza until Stan declares his plan for the boys. Then Claire's claws come out and she exhibits her "Mama Bear" maternal instincts --- and Linney is simply mesmerizing.
But the finest performance of "The Dinner" belongs to Coogan. Mostly known for his comedic roles, the character of Paul is a wonderful departure for him. As "The Dinner" begins, Paul appears a bit off, but Claire always manages to bring him around. It isn't until many of the flashbacks of him interacting with Stan that we recognize the extent of his illness. And Coogan never overplays Paul's deteriorating mental health, which makes his final act all the more shocking. It's a stellar portrayal, laced with cringe-inducing moments.
Moverman's screenplay is all over the place, which may bother some. I personally don't mind his frenetic pace. "The Dinner" is provocative, thought-provoking and many times difficult to watch. And yet, you can't turn away --- it's that good.
Opinion: See It Now!
Billed as a dark psychological thriller, "The Dinner" gets off to a sluggish, but necessary, start to develop its characters. The film eventually morphs into an increasingly disturbing, even harrowing, trip of dysfunctional relationships amid a dire family crisis. Essentially it is a very powerful dynamic about how individuals evaluate a serious situation so differently.
Israeli director Oren Moverman (writer for "The Messenger", "Love & Mercy") also scripted the screenplay from the international best-selling book by Danish author Herman Koch. The only element missing from the film is a deeper characterization of their teenage sons in terms of explaining their behavior, but we can draw our own conclusions.
Outstanding performances abound throughout "The Dinner". Richard Gere is perfectly cast as a congressman running for governor. He truly looks the part, glad-handing his way to the dinner table at a posh restaurant, greeting friends and admirers. His character, Stan, arranges the dinner for himself, his wife Katelyn (Rebecca Hall), his brother Paul (Steve Coogan) and his wife Claire (Laura Linney).
I can't divulge the reason for Stan's insistence that they meet and have an open discussion. However, I can tell you that the impetus is a bizarre and heinous act perpetrated by their sons, Michael (Charlie Plummer --- from HBO's "Boardwalk Empire"), Rick (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick, Damien in "The Omen") and Beau (Miles J. Harvey). Plummer is especially callous and chilling as their ringleader.
As for Coogan, we've gotten to know and admire his work in comedies, but his performance here is as far removed from his usual persona as one can imagine. Paul is a highly intelligent but increasingly neurotic individual whose mental illness is more apparent in each of his successive turns in the movie. He dislikes everyone, especially his brother. He's rude to the waiters and staff at the restaurant, but he is ardently supported by his wife, even as his son Michael resents him. He feels betrayed that Claire and Michael have a special bond that excludes him from their intimacy. Coogan is as effective when not uttering a word --- which is rare --- as he is in his outrageous scenes.
Hall and Linney take turns assuming center stage as their characters plead with Stan how to deal with the situation. Both actresses are compelling, and each has at least one explosive moment as the movie reaches its denoument. Audiences may find it difficult not to take one side or the other in this great debate.
Chloe Sevigney plays Barbara, Stan's first wife. Rick is their son together, then they adopted Beau. Beau's pivotal act of putting a video on Facebook might be viewed as an indictment of social media and its potential for misuse.
"The Dinner" proves to be an unusual cinematic experience. It is highly stimulating --- solidly written and acted. Its ambiguous conclusion should lend itself to animated post-movie discussions.
Opinion: See It Now!