'The Dinner': just a little too much to swallow 

A total lack of likeable characters isn't necessarily immediate cause to dislike a film. I, for one, like my art cloaked in dread, because that's what life is really like, am I right? On the other hand, two full hours with the self-absorbed, miserable characters in The Dinner may be too much to ask.

Richard Gere has top billing as Stan Lohman, a governor running for re-election, but it's his neurotic, Civil War-obsessed brother, Paul (Steve Coogan), who demands most of our attention. Paul is married to Claire (Laura Linney), who almost died of lung cancer but is doing OK now. Together, they have a spoiled, demonic teenage son named Michael (Charlie Plummer).

Stan is married to Katelyn (Rebecca Hall), and has two teenage sons, Rick and Beau, from another marriage. As suggested by the title, the film's plot revolves around the couples meeting for dinner at an expensive restaurant, the kind that requires a reservation three months out and comes with several courses arranged meticulously on mostly empty plates. I mention the couple's teenage sons because their dastardly actions and what's to be done about them will become the subject of conversation, eventually. (They sure know how to beat around the bush!) And there are many flashbacks from the couples' recent pasts to help explain why these people are so revolting today.

The Dinner is adapted by writer and director Oren Moverman from a novel of the same name by Herman Koch. I'm not familiar with Koch, but I'm a big fan of Moverman's, particularly his film The Messenger (2009), about the lives of Iraq war veterans, and his screenplay for Love & Mercy (2014), a sweet and weird biopic about Beach Boy Brian Wilson. The Dinner has hints of the Moverman I love—the characters are smart and have dimension—but there's a black hole where the film's heart should be.

click to enlarge “I’ve poisoned your wine!”
  • “I’ve poisoned your wine!”

As I see it, there are two major problems here. The first is based on a wild guess, and the second is a subjective, but I think valid, opinion. First of all, I suspect that Koch's novel is one of those depressing-but-true works of literature that you find rewarding not because it's fun, but because its story reveals upper-class characters as the self-serving, self-deceptive people we all secretly suspect and maybe even hope them to be. This is a delicate space to occupy, and I'm wondering if it just didn't survive the adaptation to cinema. For example, much is made of Paul's obsession with the battle of Gettysburg, which we see in artsy, dare I say cheap-looking flashbacks. I think there's a larger metaphor at play here about the grandness of that battle and Paul's creeping psychosis, and perhaps that metaphor lands in the novel, but in the film it's just meandering and boring.

Second, this is a mostly wonderful ensemble cast, with the notable exception of its despicable lead, Coogan. I don't usually talk a lot about acting in reviews because these are professionals operating at the highest level—I just expect them to do their jobs. Coogan is a celebrated British comedian, but he still can't do an American accent. (Have you seen Hamlet 2? Yikes.) His lack of emotional range distracts from every scene he's in, which is nearly all of them.

Most of The Dinner is tedious and unpleasant to watch, leavened by an exciting reprieve in the final act that almost—but not quite—redeems the film after the suffering it's put us through. I would skip this one and eat dinner with real people instead.

The Dinner opens at the Roxy Fri., May 5.

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