- The Dinner (2017)
When two brothers and their wives arrive in a luxurious restaurant for a catch-up, we know they weren’t particularly looking forward to meeting each other: Paul calls his brother’s family “apes”, Stan needs to be somewhere else since his campaign demands it. There’s a burning issue, however, that they need to address together – and that makes them stop their lives for a night to talk. But when they sit down in a fancy restaurant, they stumble into the stories from the past that shaped them and try to fight through the moral dilemma which could be rooted in the same old problems they struggled to find the answers to.
The set-up of The Dinner looks very interesting on paper. As we go along, Oren Moverman, the acclaimed director behind The Messenger and a writer of Love and Mercy, tries to tackle many issues at once; there’s an attempt to satirise American intelligentsia and upper classes, a question on how the past shapes the present and what role we have in learning from history, as well as a tangled moral dilemma. However, instead of finding a solid flow to back up his theories, he presents his ideas in quite a chaotic way. It feels like a stream of consciousness that throws concepts at us without trying to convince us to the reasoning behind them. Because the director doesn’t want to make a case while pushing the plot forward, the introduction to the story overstays its welcome, and the climax doesn’t have enough power to shatter its dread.
But the act of straying off course doesn’t confine only to the topics which The Dinner tries to talk about. The film ends up feeling a little theatrical because of its structure – nevertheless, its division into a handful of “acts” doesn’t explore a possibility for poignant dialogues or compelling monologues or use the confined space for creating the tension. Although the conversation often starts at the table, the same pattern of someone wandering off in anger (or because of a phone call) repeats in every act, and the dialogue is split between the corners of the fancy restaurant. When people do talk to each other, their words aren’t helping us to understand who they really are, and the feeble character setup fails us as we get closer to the resolution.
Wrestling with the structure, Moverman steers towards a more cinematic experiment when he dives into the past, but even with the flashbacks it constantly uses to hand us information as we see the situation unfold. They’re either a stream of consciousness or a picture of senseless cruelty that isn’t played convincingly enough to stir us up. We never understand why the event that fuels the action happened, and the concerned characters are just removed and jeered at. It’s easy to simplify, blame social media and video games and contrast it to the depth of events in the past, but there are too many unexplored variables in this equation to justify it.
Played by Steve Coogan, Paul is a completely unlikable character, presented as an opposition to Richard Gere’s Stan. His questionable morals manage to put us off almost instantly: he’s unpleasant when he speaks to his son, and he doesn’t mince words when he talks about his family. When we understand that his ways are rooted in his upbringing and mental illness that crept up on him, we still struggle to empathise: instead of a deep insight into his head, we get a handful of excuses. The others also seem to normalise his behaviour instead of trying their best to help him: they give up with a shrug and a sigh when they realise that his case is tougher than they imagined. Although Paul has a potential to be an interesting antihero, he mentions things distraughtly only to leave them without any evidence. His hollowness seems to be a stark contrast to the seemingly deep words he utters, and it feels like an attempt in moralising the audience.
His opposition also doesn’t seem convinced either. Richard Gere seems a bit uninterested, and rightfully so: throughout the film, he’s massively preoccupied with arguing with his assistant whether he should have a family dinner when his campaign is in full swing. He’s presented as a symbol for rich, powerful and self-serving to suddenly get pangs of conscience when the evening comes to an end. Some of his finest moments cut through the fabric of the film towards the end though, when he stands against his wife to prove his point.
Rebecca Hall, however, steals the show for the entire length of the film. In her final conversation with Richard Gere’s character, she’s full of strength and decisiveness, even if her morals are more than questionable. Her tormented leading lady, although flippant and surprising, allows us to understand her emotions whether we agree with her or not; the charisma and emotional ambiguity come out in full force as she argues for her point of view. With her stands Laura Linney, even if the film gives her a persona that could’ve been a little more developed: she’s trying her best to support her husband and scoffs at him occasionally, but seems to have a little agency on her own without constantly looking up to Paul and asking him to “do something”.
Although the film is concerned more with its stylistics than with the topics it vows to discuss, it does have a great line-up who have their strong moments at one point or another. There’s a whole lot of potent motives which are clearly defined, but never expanded upon: if only the characterisation was stronger and if the moral uncertainty was emphasised during the course of the events, the film would be a real delight. Moverman, who’s (co-)written wonderful scripts before, could do so much better than that.
The Dinner opens on the 8th of December 2017.