An enticing appetizer, half of a hearty meal, and then we’re kicked out of the restaurant.
Cinema is filled with films set around a table for a meal as family, friends, or even strangers share conversation and discovery. From My Dinner with Andre to The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, Her Lover, a shared meal is often what brings people together. It does just that in Oren Moverman‘s (The Messenger) latest film, The Dinner, but after a slowly intriguing setup that tantalizes our taste buds with the promisingly delicious feast to come to the dinner — and The Dinner – abruptly ends.
It’s enough to make you want to leave a negative Yelp review.
Two couples head towards an exclusive restaurant for dinner together, but not all of them are excited to go. Stan (Richard Gere) and his wife Katelyn (Rebecca Hall) are already at odds as he’s an eternally busy congressman constantly distracted by his duties and his staff. His younger brother, Paul (Steve Coogan), is in no hurry to arrive despite the nagging of his own wife, Claire (Laura Linney), who insists a fancy meal on the taxpayer’s dime will be fun.
It’s anything but though as the two sets of parents are there to discuss what to do about a shared secret. Their sons have committed a crime, one as yet undiscovered by the authorities, and the adults have varying views on how to handle it. They debate the issue over the course of the evening, but with each new course brought to the table and described in loving detail by the maître d‘ (Michael Chernus) the chasm between opinions grows wider and they move further and further off topic.
The Dinner can be divided into two halves between what works and what doesn’t. Put simply, the cast is tremendous with all four leads giving smart, angry performances, but the script is a disjointed mess of unnecessary subplots and wasted potential. Too much time is spent away from the table either in flashbacks, unrelated side conversations, or scenes with the teens who do little but frustrate and test viewer patience.
Moverman’s script feels continually scattershot as it flashes back years to Stan’s first wife (Chloe Sevigny) or to Paul’s episodes of mental illness, and neither of those threads amounts to anything on their own. Worse, they add nothing to the main themes of personal responsibility, white privilege, and the extremes to which a parent will go for their children. Every second away from the main conversation works to drain momentum, energy, and purpose from the film, and it’s a shame if only because the leads do such good work.
Gere is no stranger to playing smarmy characters, but his politician moves in unexpected directions to the point of becoming the most rational among them, and he crafts a heartfelt character torn by his loyalties and ambition.
Coogan meanwhile tackles another non-comedic role, and as with his wrenching turn in What Maisie Knew he delivers with a man who’s simply not up to life’s demands. The women shine even brighter though with both Linney and Hall playing variations on Lady Macbeth. Their love and dedication to their families are clear, but it’s also dangerous, and both women leave you wanting to disagree but fearing the outcome.
There’s an important conversation at the heart of The Dinner, but as presented here it’s one filled with stops, starts, tangents, and a lack of resolution. Not every film needs closure, and not every question need be answered, but setting a table like this implies there will be more than just scraps to chew on.