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The Dinner

by Glenn Erickson Aug 05, 2017

DVD SAVANT

How far will the new American aristocracy go to protect its privileges? Oren Moverman’s intense four-way war of wills is sourced from a novel but shapes up as an intense stage piece in a chi-chi restaurant interrupted by flashbacks and other stylistic flourishes. The acting foursome is excellent, with Steve Coogan a standout as a truly disturbed character. Four adults debate their sons’ high crimes and misdemeanors over designer cuisine.


The Dinner
Blu-ray + Digital HD
Lionsgate
2017 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 120 min. / Street Date August 8, 2017 / 24.99
Starring: Richard Gere, Laura Linney, Steve Coogan, Rebecca Hall, Chloë Sevigny, Charlie Plummer, Adepero Oduye, Michael Chernus, Taylor Rae Almonte, Joel Bissonnette.
Cinematography: Bobby Bukowski
Film Editor: Alex Hall
Written by Owen Moverman from the novel by Herman Koch
Produced by Caldecott Chub, Lawrence Inglee, Julia Lebedev, Eddie Valsman
Directed by
Oren Moverman

 

Herman Koch’s novel The Dinner comes to America after two successful European versions, Dutch and Italian. Some major changes were made during the adaptation that does little harm to what is a scathing look at status and privilege. Presumably the Dutch original isn’t as concerned with specific issues, like the odd guilt and disdain Americans sometimes have for ostentatious luxuries. A group of sensitive, wealthy people get together for a sumptuous feast in a high-end eatery, but the issues at stake — secrets and lies — soon set them at each others’ throats. The rather judgmental POV keeps shifting. At first we have nobody to root for and then we come to identify with each major character, before events slam the door on them once more.

Busy director Oren Moverman has some slick writing credits but no breakout hits. His show makes gestures toward sly comedy, but that’s not how it plays. We get plenty wound up in the drama while navigating some confusing flashbacks. We’re eventually abandoned at a moment of tension, without a resolution for the central dilemma.

It’s a trying, awkward swank dinner on a cold night. Congressman Stan Lohman (Richard Gere) is in the midst of a campaign as well as a big push for an important health bill; he can barely tear himself away from his assistant Nina (Adepero Oduye), yet invites his estranged brother Paul (Steve Coogan) because something important needs to be discussed. Stan’s younger wife Katelyn (Rebecca Hall) seems furious at him. Paul’s wife Claire (Laura Linney) is the picture of diplomacy, and must urge him not to cancel at the last minute. Paul is an ex-history teacher suffering from some kind of mental illness. In an effort to not be ‘numb’ he’s gone off his meds, and his nervous, suspicious personality swings are emotionally draining. Paul obsesses about Gettysburg. He has discovered that Claire and their teenaged son Michael (Charlie Plummer) are hiding secrets from him, and responds with a constant flow of criticism and insults. The ever-patient Claire gets Paul to the dinner, where he complains loudly about the restaurant’s decadent cuisine and hospitality. Headwaiter Dylan Heinz (Michael Chernus) takes it all in stride. Stan cannot even start a statement before Paul interrupts with rude, insulting remarks. We find out that Paul ‘lost it’ some time in the past when Claire got sick, and he couldn’t handle the strain; he was never close to Stan and now he behaves as if they’re mortal enemies. The pampered and insecure Katelyn is almost as hostile, so it’s all Claire and Stan can do to keep the party together, even though Paul nervously leaves the table for minutes at a time. Paul’s erratic behavior delays the purpose of the dinner, to sort out a major shared problem. Young Michael Lohman and Stan’s son Rick (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) have committed a heinous, meaningless crime, and one of them has posted a video of it on Facebook. So far they haven’t been identified. Claire and Katelyn propose one response, and Stan another. Paul stays silent, angry that he’s been kept out of the loop. But there’s more trouble — a third boy, Beau (Miles J. Harvey) wants money to keep silent.

An expertly written and acted story about a fairly hideous ethics situation, Oren Moverman’s The Dinner is a somewhat frustrating experience. The characters are certainly credible, and the unpleasant interpersonal dynamics guarantee a level of stomach-twisting intensity. The blackmail ploy comes from within the family, which is set to eat itself alive. I’ve read the movie described as a comedy, which to me misses the mark. Yes, it’s vaguely awkward that this glorious, once-in-a-lifetime meal is being set before people with no appetite, who can’t possibly be enjoying what they’re eating. The top-level Congressman with his trophy wife, and the troubled brother with his strong and protective wife invite some mixed reactions, depending on one’s preconceived biases. The subject at hand is the problems of the well-to-do, and we expect a slightly satirical exposé of empty values and elitist hauteur. The movie isn’t as critically sour on relationships as Diary of a Mad Housewife, but it’s also doesn’t have the delicate insight of Six Degrees of Separation.

 

All of the performances are excellent. Steve Coogan’s Paul comes off as the leading character simply because he’s so disturbing. A serious problem case, Paul is a mess of self-doubt and insecurity due to his ongoing mental health issues; he lashes out at society, at the students that didn’t appreciate his wisdom and especially at Stan, who he feels is a phony and hypocrite. Paul’s freaked because he’s gotten a hold of Michael’s cell phone, and knows that his son and wife are hiding something from him. Paul is one hell of an unpleasant guy — he may have good days but his behavior is bad enough to get him locked up. We see flashbacks of obscene classroom outbursts that would terminate most any instructor. Paul’s son Michael has also written him off. Michael takes his privileges as givens and answers most questions with insolent accusations, even when Claire is asking. In other words, he’s turning into Paul, without the intervening mental problem.

 

The entitled Katelyn and the mission-bound Claire work across purposes. The emotionally needy Katelyn wants to support Stan but resents that he’s not giving her enough of himself. Yet she also wants him to pursue his demanding political career no matter what. Claire initially comes off as the Iron Mother, capable of weathering Paul’s tirades, as if he doesn’t mean the things he says. She takes all the family responsibilities on herself, including the weight of her son’s awful crime. We can’t help but condemn Claire and Katelyn when they launch into a full-scale psychotic rant to justify the imperative of covering up their sons’ guilt. They go the whole gamut in rationalizing and excusing a horrible act of murder, insisting that their sons are naturally innocent, blaming the victim, and giving two-score reasons why it’s best to pretend it all never happened. Of course this is insanity. Three teenagers are involved, and one or all of them is bound to let out the guilty secret.

 

Richard Gere’s Stan initially seems an easy target of scorn, as he’s constantly interrupting the dinner to check on a vote tally for his health bill. Stan tries to keep an even keel most of the evening despite Paul’s outrageous provocations, and spiteful sniping from Katelyn. Our sympathies change radically when Stan turns out to be the only adult capable of voicing an ethical standard. Stan alone realizes that Michael and Rick must turn themselves in. He believes that his political career is over, which only redoubles the outrage and venom that comes at him from the other side of the table.

So the film’s argument boils down to a conflict of wills. Who will prevail, and to what level will they sink to get what they want? In the last couple of scenes the show does go a little wild, with Katelyn laying down an ultimatum and Paul doing what we feared all along, becoming dangerously violent. It’s pretty strong stuff.

The film’s structure and some details are little confusing. The main title sequence is an artful montage of samples of gourmet cuisine, behind elegant text. It is followed by a teen party with an obscene rap song on the soundtrack. Occasional inter-titles introduce new ‘chapters’ named after dinner courses — apertif, digestif, etc., rather blatantly commenting on the indigestible dramatics that play out. Flashbacks show the god-awful interpersonal horrors of the recent past. We get a hint of Stan’s first wife Barbara (Chloé Sevigny of The Last Days of Disco) and more detail on Paul’s meltdown. Not working at all are voice-overs of Paul’s rants on various subjects, which culminate in an extended dream montage about Gettysburg, the only subject in which the obsessive Paul finds mental relief.

The icing on the cake is flashbacks depicting Michael and Rick’s crime, showing it to be a vicious, unthinkable act that could only be committed by kid monsters with zero effective sense of social morality, or indeed any interest beyond themselves. The inference is that their atrocity is a natural outgrowth of the way they are raised, without values or empathy for others. Viewers with a sense of justice wouldn’t mind seeing the two boys, plus some of the adults, marched out into the snow and shot.

 

The format of the swank dinner is important, to show how prosperous Americans live in a bubble of luxuries. Their money allows them to command superior positions in most of their external relationships. The restaurant and its staff promise limitless elegance (for a price) and greet Stan Lohman as if he’s a beloved member of their family. This is the norm when vendors deal with people that feel their money separates them from The Ordinary Rabble, and entitles them to special treatment. If the customer thinks they are being served, they couldn’t be nicer. If the customer finds out you consider yourself an equal, the unwritten deal is off. When Paul directly attacks this illusion, we are uncomfortable too.

Does this sound like an anti- top ten percent rant? Naturally this only applies to affluent monsters, the kind begging for an invite to a party in the Place de Guillotine. There are of course plenty of very affluent people who are down to earth, and ethical saints. To me, Stan Lohman demonstrates his fair share of decent values. He makes a sincere and principled gesture toward Doing The Right Thing.

Because this version of The Dinner is set in America, with its tradition of rather toothless liberal outrage movies, the interpersonal focus gets lost in the details – is the social divide one of race, class or money? What’s clearer is that above a certain strata white privilege will do anything to maintain its superior position, its property and its privacy. Admitting failure is so unthinkable that the Lohmans will reorder reality to suit their psychic needs. Mothers protecting their brood will strike out at anything; an unbalanced guy like Paul is unpredictable.

I can’t help feeling that the extreme case depicted in The Dinner clouds the argument — to condemn the privileged upper class, all one has to do is show how a mothers responds when their golden sons don’t win the big award at school. Ask really upscale people to wait their turn or stand in a line, and they become petty savages. Look at the pampered the pets of the rich: if they get bored, they immediately start chewing up the furniture, to express insecurity and contempt. That’s basically what the rotten, maladjusted Lohman kids do. Apparently the author Herman Koch, a Dutchman, sees the same thing in his own society.

The Dinner is uneven but impressive. I’d really like to see Steve Coogan play a role where he’s not entirely repulsive. Laura Linney and Rebecca Hall are believable upscale monsters; milder versions of Linney’s Claire are everywhere in prosperous communities. Richard Gere has been an excellent actor for years, so much so that I’ve forgotten how little I thought of him when he started out. The Dinner is sort of slipping in through the side door, and will likely not get a lot of mainstream attention — it made its theatrical bow less than sixty days ago. But I like what it has to say, and it’s always good to see fine actors playing difficult parts.


 

Lionsgate’s Blu-ray + Digital HD of The Dinner is a handsome encoding of a film largely shot at night, contrasting the warm restaurant interior with a freezing ATM booth. Picture and audio are up to present standards, which are very high. The film has plenty of source music, and the restaurant scenes are accompanied by piano tunes drifting in from another room, but if a conventional music score is working, it’s heavily disguised. That’s a good choice, as anything cueing us how to react to these characters would make the movie unwatchable. Rap music is used for lazy shorthand communication, cueing us that these kids are already little monsters.

Besides a photo gallery, a full feature commentary gives us a nice discussion with director Moverman and star Laura Linney. She begins by asking her director to explain the many logos up front. They recall the filming situations in detail, and it’s not just a lot of self-congratulation and praise. I was interested to learn that the restaurant was actually a rented mansion, dolled up to the nines by Moverman’s designers.

A digital HD code is included in the disc case.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Dinner Blu-ray + Digital HD rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Commentary with director Owen Moverman and star Laura Linney
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 3, 2017
(5483dinn)

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for DVD Savant.