The Dinner – movie review

by James Robins / 12 August, 2017

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Paul (Steve Coogan) and Stan (Richard Gere) in The Dinner.

A drama of in-laws debating whether to dob in errant sons makes a meal of it.

At the heart of The Dinner is a knotty moral conundrum. Two teenagers have done something terrible to a homeless woman. One is the son of modest middle-class couple Paul (Steve Coogan) and Claire (Laura Linney). The father of the other boy is Paul’s brother Stan (Richard Gere), a silver-haired congressman in the middle of an election campaign for governor, who is married to the glamorous Katelyn (Rebecca Hall).

The couples meet at a restaurant to discuss how to deal with their wayward, potentially criminal kids. Protect them? Or turn them in?

A parley under similar circumstances was at the heart of Roman Polanski’s Carnage – a taut four-way tangle in which the veneer of civility quickly slipped as the parents battled their respective corners, the audience’s allegiance shifting with each new revelation. If only The Dinner had been as efficient and clever. Instead, it’s a mess, with the participants constantly getting up from the table, knocking over wine glasses and being rude to the maître d’.

Unfocused and wayward, the film dips into inert flashbacks and long digressions, including a complete retelling of the Battle of Gettysburg. There is the suggestion that this odd tangent is supposed to illustrate Paul’s agitated, obsessive mental state, but mostly it feels incongruous.

Director Oren Moverman packs his adaptation of Herman Koch’s novel with clichés and actorly shouting matches resolved with mock platitudes. And the conjecture about Stan’s adopted black son veers uncomfortably close to racism. One can only dream about what such writers as Aaron Sorkin or David Mamet might have done with the material.

Worst of all, the tension is never wound tight enough. So when the final reveal comes, it’s nowhere near as explosive as it ought to be. I’d advise leaving before the aperitif.

IN CINEMAS NOW

★1/2

This article was first published in the August 12, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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