There's nothing dull about this dinner party in Oren Moverman's saucy drama, The Dinner. Moverman is one of the most versatile filmmakers around, but what's most intriguing about him is the shifting approach he takes depending on if he's directing or just writing the screenplay. While his scripts for Love & Mercy and I'm Not There were deeply personal yet accessible, his directorial efforts such as The Messenger, Rampart, and Time Out of Mind have been subversively political. All deal with failing aspects of the government system, whether it be the military, law enforcement, or social services. The Dinner is perhaps the most overtly political film he's done and makes for the perfect Trump era drama about the legacy of privilege.
The Dinner is a little bit like the flipside of the coin to Moverman's other political movies, showing those who have seen benefit and will always see benefit no matter what they've done. When the familiar cinematic question is asked, "How far would you go to protect your kids?", the answer is very different depending on your rung on the social ladder.
An adaptation of Dutch novelist Herman Koch's scathing social satire that has been adapted multiple times for multiple nationalities, the story finds two couples at a super bourgeois, top secret restaurant having one very testy dinner engagement. Steve Coogan is Paul, an acerbic former history teacher who can scarcely go five minutes without some reference to the American Civil War. It's an apt skill for the decidedly civil war of words he's about to be dragged into by his fiercely loyal wife, Claire (Laura Linney). She's the one who encourages him to attend the dinner invitation from Paul's seemingly uppity brother, Stan (Richard Gere), and his most recent wife, Kate (Rebecca Hall). Seeing as how Paul calls his brother an "ape", we assume this won't be a happy reunion. Paul seems to hate everything about him, including his politics, which is awkward since Stan is a U.S. congressman running for Governor on a platform that will surely sour his bitter sibling.
If the acidic verbal sparring of Roman Polanski's Carnage was to your liking, then The Dinner is probably your speed. Split into courses from "Appetizer" all the way up to "Digestif", each broken up by the appearance of an over-eager matire'd (Michael Chernus) who endures insults and bad food puns ("We don't have thyme!"), they act more like boxing rounds in a prize fight. Their kids have done something awful; something that was caught on video and threatens to destroy Stan's political career. He's called them together to do something about it, and the responses he gets are surprisingly vicious. It's like someone peed in his consumme.
The Dinner unfolds in ways that are constantly surprising and illuminating. Paul begins looking as if he'll be our curmudgeonly voice of reason; the everyman hero in a sea of white collar lies. His every other word some kind of jabbing barb, his rhetoric slowly begins to take on a different shape, so much so that we may begin to see him in very different light. The same goes for Claire, with Linney's innocent routine melting away to reveal much harsher contours similar to her manipulative, Lady Macbeth performance in Mystic River. There are jealousies big and small everywhere. Gere is at his self-righteous best while Hall could turn men to ice with the glare she shoots from across the dinner table. Coogan has the most challenging role by far. Further revelations about Paul reveal him to be a man who isn't just combative for the sake of being combative, although it's clear that the fight makes him feel alive in some way. Our own biases and preconceived notions about class are repeatedly toyed with, especially our natural dislike for politicians. Who can ever trust those guys? Teachers are much more reliable, haven't you found?
The setup quickly loses its flavor, however. The repeated breaks and the accompanying flashbacks are clunky, and feature performances by younger actors (one of which is Charlie Plummer) that don't measure up to their older counterparts. Also, whatever message Moverman hoped to send, and he definitely hoped to send one with a film like this, is lost in a muddled finale that leaves The Dinner slightly undercooked, if still pretty tasty.
Rating: 3 out of 5