Mark Reviews Movies

The Dinner


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Oren Moverman

Cast: Steve Coogan, Richard Gere, Laura Linney, Rebecca Hall, Charlie Plummer, Chloë Sevigny, Adepero Oduye, Michael Chernus, Miles J. Harvey, Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick

MPAA Rating: R (for disturbing violent content, and language throughout)

Running Time: 2:00

Release Date: 5/5/17

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Review by Mark Dujsik | May 4, 2017

If there's one thing we learn by the end of The Dinner, it's that we cannot count on the basic human decency of any of these characters. This is an intensely cynical film, and it's not just because we can't count on any of the characters. It's because there's some point within the course of the film that we believe we can count on each of them. We think each of them either is better than we first assumed or has learned better. Every time, they prove our first assumptions to be correct.

The story revolves around a four-course dinner at a fancy restaurant. The participants are two brothers and their wives. One of the brothers is a sitting congressman, currently pulling double duty by pushing a major bill for votes and running for governor.

The other was a public school teacher, although now he's working on a book about the Battle of Gettysburg. His wife insists that his job is saying that he's currently writing a book about the Battle of Gettysburg.

The politician's wife is his second, who has grown to love his three children—two with his former wife and another that the ex-spouses adopted from Kenya. The ex-wife disappeared to a commune somewhere. The brother believes that women can only stand the politicians for a few weeks after sleeping with him. After that, the continuation of the relationship depends on whether or not a woman is willing to put up with the politician's many flaws for the benefits of being with him.

The film's tone is defined by Paul Lohman (Steve Coogan), the former teacher. His internal monologue runs through opening scenes of the film with a level of skepticism that can only be called vicious.

We see him teaching later on in a series of flashbacks and quickly learn why he doesn't anymore. His class is inattentive, so he yells and curses at them. The lecture that follows points out the duality of war, although the two components both have to do with people whom he dubs "assholes." Wars should do away with those people (The examples he offers his class of such people are personal: a brother, an abusive mother, and a terrible cousin), but in being done away with, they become heroes or victims—memorialized on the same plaques and in the same books as the decent people who died.

The politician is Stan Lohman (Richard Gere), who arrives at the restaurant late on account of his vote-gathering and campaigning. He has to talk to Paul about something. The truth must come out over the course of the meal, and a decision must be made by the end of it.

Director Oren Moverman's screenplay (based on the novel by Herman Koch) is hesitant in revealing the underlying truth behind this gathering. That's part of these characters, too, especially when it comes to Paul, who is in the dark about what has prompted this dinner but gradually realizes that the fate of his entire family is on the line. The secondary questions are who knows how much and why they haven't told Paul.

His wife Claire (Laura Linney), a cancer survivor, knows some part of it, as does Stan's current wife Katelyn (Rebecca Hall). Much of the film is about noticing how these characters act in response to the possession of this knowledge. Claire seems patient—a trait she has had to perfect through her life with Paul. Katelyn seems impatient, but is that the stress of a husband juggling too many career prospects or something else?

Moverman incorporates plenty of flashbacks, most of them dealing with the drunken aftermath of a party with Michael (Charlie Plummer)—Paul and Claire's son—Rick (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick)—Stan's son with his ex-wife (played by Chloë Sevigny)—and Beau (Miles J. Harvey), whom Stan adopted with his ex. The film reveals the truth of that night before we see it within the flashbacks, although who participated in the act, why they did, and how they have responded after the fact are as important as how—and perhaps a major reason why—the parents dance around the notion of speaking it aloud.

The other, lengthy flashback is about Paul's struggle with mental health issues. The reasons for it seems to be twofold: First, it offers something of a jaded punch line for the drifting ellipsis that is the final scene (This isn't a story about coming to any direct action or moral certainty, and Paul, given the way he sees the world, is the only character who can recognize that sad fact), and second, it offers a new way of seeing Stan. The politician spends most of the first half of the film as we'd expect of a cynical representation of a politician, but through those scenes of Paul's struggles, we see a man who genuinely cares, has a hard time expressing it, and is met with disdain by the one man he hopes can see through the tough exterior he has given himself.

He's a character, in other words, who seems capable of offering a sound, moral judgment on the issues at hand. The film's climax is a trio of conversations—one between the four lead players and one between each set of spouses. There's a lot of negotiating—of terms for how to deal with the problem, of perspectives on who really was and is going to be harmed, of what the genuinely right thing to do under the circumstances actually is. The Dinner knows the last one (Note the sound of the roaring fire that nearly dominates the soundtrack beneath those final negotiations), and the tension here is in whether these characters will prove our assumptions about them wrong or simply confirm them.

Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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