The Dinner (2017)

2017 | rated R | starring Steve Coogan, Laura Linney, Richard Gere, Rebecca Hall, Chloe Sevigney | directed by Owen Moverman | 2hrs |

Studio Pitch: Four top-shelf actors duel it out in a minimalist conversation piece as two parents meet to discuss a matter that has to do with their kids.

Going into Owen Moverman’s The Dinner (a remake of the same-titled Italian film I haven’t seen), I set my expectation level at Carnage – a little seen Roman Polanski film with Christoph Waltz, Kate Winslet, Jodi Foster and John C. McGinley with a very similar premise. It’s a small 4-person single-location film about two sets of parents who meet to discuss a fight their children had and what to do about it – resulting in a clash of parenting styles. The films start off the same and unwind radically differently. My first tip-off should have been the length, Carnage clocks in at a brisk and perfectly appropriate 80 minutes for a 4 person film. The Dinner is a full 2 hours and you feel every insufferable minute of it. Watching this movie spiral so completely off the rail becomes maddening and it’s clear why the film – despite a very marketable cast – was never given a widely promoted release.

This marks the third 1-star movie I’ve scored this year and where it not for the decent performances from the 4 leads it would have been a half star, a special place in cinematic hell for movies that are barely movies, that waste the time and talent of everyone involved, that don’t seem complete and that are borderline offensive. Previous films handed this score – Wish Upon and The Snowman – are certainly duds, but aren’t obnoxious to the point of offense like this one is. They also have a beginning, middle and an end. I don’t hate them. But let’s back up.

Paul (Steve Coogan, with a strange phony American accent) and his wife Claire (Laura Linney) are invited to an elegant dinner at a fancy restaurant by another couple, as it turns out Paul’s brother who also happens to be running for governor,  Stan (Richard Gere) along with his new wife Kate (Rebecca Hall). It’s Christmas time, the snow is on the ground, the wait staff is overly friendly given Stan’s fame, on screen text comes up in script font taking us through the courses and the table is set for a tense, minimalist 4-person bit of theater. Paul is immediately apprehensive and vocal about how he doesn’t want to be there. In addition to a deep resentment for his brother’s life he sounds like every miserable Buzzfeed blogger who sits at the table ranting about war and famine and how he refuses to drink the champagne with the state of the world as it is.

What did the kids do to warrant this uncomfortable meeting? We’ll get that dolled out awkwardly in flashbacks because the movie doesn’t trust it’s actors to paint that picture with words, it’s audience to have the attention span for it and because unfolding a mystery like this is trendy. During the meal our characters are interrupted endlessly. Sometimes by Stan’s campaign advisor or Paul’s rants about the past or the movie itself to drop in more flashbacks. It jerks it’s audience around with each aborted attempt to get to the point. To the point it seems that The Dinner isn’t about the crime at all, or about the characters’ grappling with parenthood or ruminations on guilt and self-preservation – it’s about the dinner itself, the conversation itself, and the lack of it.  The film unfolds almost like a Luis Brunel parable. Guests arrive for a dinner but can’t sit down to eat, except here parents arrive for dinner but can’t have a straight-forward conversation. Except this film doesn’t bend it into a purpose or a satirical point. It’s filmmaking masturbation of the most pretentious and frustrating kind.

Instead of an equally balance ensemble, Dinner puts a lot on Coogan’s character and the Trip star is up to the task (there is nothing wrong with the performances here). When the movie pops off the rails it does so to delve more into Paul to the point of being swallowed up by the character. Paul’s ticks are all symptoms of a mental illness, however he like everyone else in the film, is also a jerk. It’s unclear how he writes books, held down a teaching job (he teaches history and hates it), raises his son, marries not one but two women and keeps their house all the while spewing venom for his brother, the waiter and anyone around him who tries to help. When the movie falls down the Paul rabbit hole it ceases to be about it’s central conundrum and starts being about mental illness and mothers & sons and war and jerks and cheese and The Battle of Gettysburg.

Well into the 2nd half the endless flashbacks becomes such a mess they could be flash forwards. They exist in no time and no space. When Coogen steps out for air and to see his son he seems to spend an hour out there and nobody notices. The centerpiece to it all is an absolutely bizarre digression, a POV tour through the Gettysburg memorial battleground that looks like it was shot on home video and goes on for an eternity. Then, after all of it, like any film that wants to slap us across the face, the movie doesn’t end as much as it just stops, cut to black, credits roll,  like it ran out of film.

I’m all for a cast of unappealing characters. I’m all for experimental and challenging films. I was a big advocate of Darren Aronofsky’s pretentious Mother! and Yorgos Lanthimos’ deliberately frustrating The Killing of a Sacred Deer. But those movies are imaginative, they have style, they reflect a unique voice from their director. They went somewhere and said something. The Dinner on the other hand is sour, shallow, uncurious, ugly and rambles like a maniac. Every scene in it goes on 4 times too long and goes nowhere, deliberately cutting off advancing the story at every turn. It’s like running on a mouse wheel.

And my interpretation, that this movie is deliberately designed this way, is giving Moverton (he did make the very recommendable The Messenger) a huge benefit of the doubt it probably doesn’t deserve. If it isn’t a messed-up, unfocused cinematic mirror maze, it is a genuine drama about parents struggling to protect themselves and their troubled children and a serious look at genetic mental illness.  That’s the literal movie we’re getting here and it is a far more grating watch. That’s a movie that doesn’t even come close to being about what it’s supposedly about. That takes a crime story, a mental illness family drama and a minimalist conversational piece, carves them up, then crudely smashes them against each other for the sake of trying to create artificial tension where there is none and a puzzle box film that doesn’t serve the story.

In some of the glimpses of Paul’s high school lectures we hear him pontificate about how many people who died in war were actually jerks who we have made into innocent victims and then instructs the class to add up all the casualty figures of every war to see how many people would be on this Earth now otherwise. Like a Civil War fighter would still be alive today. That’s the baseline level of profundity here.

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