Why Bother With Dessert When This ‘Dinner’ Butchers the Main Course?

Originally published May 10th, 2017 on thedistantcloseup.com

You all know the dreaded Thanksgiving dinner stereotype. Your family and some extended relatives gather for dinner late afternoon, and at first, everything’s going swimmingly. Uncle Joe’s already had three glasses of Pinot Noir, but nothing’s crashed and burned yet. The conversation begins or continues light and airy in spite of the multitude of probing questions about what you plan to do with your life, due in no small part to sanity saving conversations about sports or movies, and then there’s a shift.

Those unspoken forbidden topics religion and/or politics rear their ugly head, and someone at the table – let’s just say it’s Uncle Joe – says something racist, sexist, homophobic, what have you. Tensions rise with each passing moment, while you’re counting down the seconds until the bomb under the table goes off. Oren Moverman’s The Dinner, the third adaptation of its acclaimed source material, is a dramatic thriller whose premise means to employ that Hitchcockian principle of suspense, and yet the bomb never truly explodes.

Based upon Herman Koch’s Dutch novel of the same name, The Dinner is Moverman’s fourth directorial feature, and for someone whose credits began with The Messenger, this may be his worst misfire. In the story, two brothers, one an esteemed politician running for governor and the other a former public school history teacher, and their wives sit down at a fancy restaurant to discuss a heinous crime their sons committed and have gotten away with. Naturally, there are differing views on how best to move forward, and fraternal, as well as marital tensions escalate the deeper the conversation goes.

The film’s first act starts promising, aside for a strangely composed opening credit sequence. We’re introduced to all of the key players and we get a clear, succinct sense of their motivations, or so we think, without being handed any expositional context. The talent accrued for this picture remain individually solid throughout, but it’s during this opening act where their performances aren’t yet overshadowed by the film’s glaring flaws, which includes, but is not limited to some baffling musical cues.

Though he’s most known for his comedic side, Steve Coogan convincingly gives us the pessimistic scoundrel who shall incite the trainwreck everyone loves to witness, while co-stars Laura Linney, Richard Gere and Rebecca Hall all give expectedly veteran turns, the latter of whom being the most blistering. The dialogue is frequently sharp, as well, to pair well with the performances like a full-bodied Cabernet Sauvignon with a fine cheddar. These ingredients keep us attached to see where the rest of the meal will go, if we already know how it will intensify, but while the aperitif and corresponding appetizers whet the palate, the main course quickly falls apart.

Consequently, the narrative cheekily structures itself in chapters according to the various courses of a fine dining experience, but that isn’t where the film goes sideways. The plot intertwines past with present, dinner with what crime the boys committed and how they did it, in an attempt to simultaneously heighten the drama until it comes to an overwhelming boil. While that might have made for compelling storytelling and added an extra layer of mystery, the focus unravels providing extraneous exposition for each character’s state of mind with an excessive number of flashbacks that almost diminish the significance of the present, thanks to Moverman’s leisurely direction during these segments.

Not only that, these flashbacks focus almost solely on one character, while context for the others is, for the most part, spoken about rather than shown, and somehow that adds up to neat and clear character development come dinner’s transition into dessert and digestif. With hackneyed direction and unstable focus, these narrative sections quickly devolve into the same melodrama the flashbacks create, and so too does the writing equally jump ship. Promising themes of perception versus reality and public versus private are quickly scraped off the plate like unwanted crumbs by material that only wants to serve us rich sweets.

Next to nothing is actually resolved, and well before it’s all over, you’ve sufficiently despised everyone who took part – just like the Thanksgiving dinner you’ve never wanted, but seemed to always receive, anyway. Many have praised the source material for its wit and insight, but Moverman’s adaptation tosses such things to the wind with a viewing experience that slowly – and I mean, slowly – becomes more infuriating and painful the more you realize it’s leading nowhere, much less to a halfway satisfying detonation.

Hitchcock would have been disappointed, and unfortunately so am I.

1.5/5

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