- Actors: Richard Gere, Laura Linney, Steve Coogan, Rebecca Hall, Chloë Sevigny
- Directors: Oren Moverman
- Format: AC-3, DTS Surround Sound, NTSC, Subtitled, Widescreen
- Language: English
- Subtitles: English, Spanish
- Region: Region A/1
- Number of discs: 1
- Rated: R
- Studio: LIONSGATE
- Release Date: August 8, 2017
- Run Time: 120 minutes
As the third adaptation of Herman Koch’s novel about the collapse of morality in a civilized society, The Dinner has more than just the source material to compete with. Despite provocative efforts by filmmaker Oren Moverman to adapt the source material in a way that relates to modern American society, it also feels like a movie too aware of the uphill battle it faces, often adding more than the narrative can handle. Ultimately, while individual ideas within the film show flashes of brilliance, the full experience is more over-stuffed than four protagonists after the meal they consume during the two-hour run-time.
Overstuffed thematically as the film might be, its simplicity in the basic plot structure could easily have led to a staginess that feels more theatrical than cinematic. The film begins with what appears to be a simple dinner date between family members, though we soon discover that there is a bigger issue at hand. Brothers Paul (Steve Coogan) and Stan Lohman (Richard Gere) meet with their wives, Claire (Laura Linney) and Katelyn (Rebecca Hall), in order to discuss an act of savagery committed by their sons. In one of the numerous ironic juxtapositions in the film, the discussion of the deplorable act is carried out in the most luxurious and civilized of settings. As the couples are served opulent courses, they often expose a base vulgarity within themselves and the upper class world they inhabit.
A majority of the film simply features these four characters sitting at a dinner table talking, perfectly suited for a stage production. But Moverman goes out of his way to avoid this by constantly chopping the film up with inserted flashbacks, often overly stylized in their cinematography and editing. Ironically, the efforts that Moverman makes out of fear of the narrative’s stagnancy ultimately dissipate the natural tension of the far superior scenes of dialogue. Moverman’s last film (Time Out of Mind) succeeded due to its reliance on visual storytelling, but he makes the mistake of trying to utilize this again in a narrative that begs for an emphasis on words. The end result is a muddled film, filled with an overabundance of ideas both in the visuals and the dialogue.
But what is the film actually about, other than two couples sharing a meal? This is where things get tricky, because there is no one simple answer. On one hand, the surface point of the film seems to be a moral decision being made by these four parents. Their children have committed a horrific act against a clearly mentally ill homeless person. Even more fitting with the ugliness of modern society, their actions are uploaded onto the internet for the sole purpose of manufacturing of outrage, forcing the parents to decide what to do. As Stan is a successful politician, the film (or perhaps just the audience of jaded Americans) automatically assumes his natural reaction to the controversy. Unexpectedly, it turns out he is the only one among them willing to put the moral decision above his own interest.
The morality of their children’s actions and their response would have been plenty for the film, but it often gets lost in the worthy topic of mental illness, which was also a dominant theme in Moverman’s previous film. Not only is the homeless woman clearly mentally ill, but Paul also suffers from similar ailments, inherited from their mother. Add to this the fact that the dinner takes place the evening of the vote for a bill created by Stan to treat mental illness the same as physical illness and the movie’s themes become even more splintered, not to mention begging more comparison to the current political climate in America.
Even this is not enough for Moverman’s film, adding even more allegories through Paul’s obsession with the American Civil War, and the subtle casting of three black actors in crucial roles. Although there is some implication that race has a place in the discussion of the numerous themes in the film, the more important element in this film’s examination of the Civil War is of the opposing sides and differing views on what the fight was even about. Unfortunately, while these may be the most relevant ideas to the film’s narrative, they are also the ones most often muddled by the mental illness Paul suffers from, whether in his inappropriate rants to the high school students he teaches or in flashbacks of a trip with his brother to Gettysburg.
Take any one idea from The Dinner and you will find a plethora of material for analysis within the film, but looking at them all together makes for a confused film. Even in trying to formulate a synopsis of these ideas, I fear I have created a convoluted review, however fitting it may be with Moverman’s final product. This is a rare movie that somehow tries to do too much while resulting in a final product that will still be boring to many average viewers, especially with the frustration of its open ending.
Moverman’s visual flair may seem good reason to view this film in high definition, but the stylized sections are more distracting than necessary. The only real reason for the additional clarity is to see the detailed work done in the production design. The Blu-ray release comes with a Digital HD copy of the film, along with a production photo gallery and a commentary track on the special features. The commentary includes writer/director Moverman joined by Laura Linney.
Entertainment Value: 5.5/10
Quality of Filmmaking: 7/10
Historical Significance: 6/10
Special Features: 5/10