A disturbing look at the traditional American view of the “Family Dinner”

Director: Oren Moverman/2017

Starring: Richard Gere, Laura Linney, Steve Coogan, Rebecca Hall

The very notion of having a “family dinner” is something that is seen in American society as a wonderful time where families bond, unwind, discuss their day, and set aside all of life’s distractions in order to find refuge in the one place that is supposed to be safe.

This is not that dinner.

Director Oren Moverman delivers a screenplay based on the book by Herman Koch of one family dinner that works the complete inverse of the ideal I described.  This is a dinner where everyone seated around the table has their own agenda and secrets, each playing the others in order to divide, get wound up, avoid the issues they must face, and look for any distraction that can, and any lie they can believe, to justify just how disgusting they truly are.  This dinner, while being served exquisite food, is already ruined before it begins.

Despite excellent performances, this is one meal that will not “hit the spot”, and may leave one with more indigestion than savory flavor by the time the check arrives.

Paul Lohman (Steve Coogan-The Trip to Italy, Philomena) and his wife Claire (Laura Linney-Love Actually, The Exorcism of Emily Rose) are preparing to attend a dinner with Paul’s brother Stan (Richard Here-Pretty Woman, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) and his second wife Katelyn (Rebecca Hall-Christine, Iron Man 3).  Despite being brothers, Paul, a former history teacher, has no love for his congressman brother.  An expert on war, and the idea that there is always a winner, Paul fights as every bit the politician his brother is, even when denying that they are two sides of the same coin.  They are oil and water, but they are truly cut from the same cloth.

The dinner is arranged by Stan who, despite being bogged down with trying to guide a bill to passage the next morning and trying to run for Governor, is determined to deal with a horrific act perpetrated by he and Paul’s sons.  Each person has their own angle on the act, and their own idea of what truly happened, but as the dinner plays out, the truly horrific act is being conducted amongst the family disfunction seated around the dinner table.

Oren Moverman, who wrote the excellent Brian Wilson story, Love & Mercy, has a little bit tougher time with The Dinner, but there is still plenty to like by the time the credits roll.  The film weaves back and forth between the dinner and a series of flashbacks that slowly reveal the horrific act that is the dreaded topic of conversation at the night’s dinner, as well as other scenes that shed more light on the personal demons of the four main players, primarily Paul and Claire.

As he does in many of his films that he has either written, or directed, Oren Moverman, reaches deep into the world of mental illness, and like the Richard Gere starring Time Out of Mind, he also shows the effect it has on the homeless.  Only here, that stereotype is turned on its head, as he also uses the story to take subtle jabs at racism, privilege, and the notion of parenthood existing as a means to protect one’s child and give them every chance to succeed, even in the face of unimaginable and tragic events.

Coogan is truly one of the most underrated actors today, and deserves to be given many of the type of dramatic roles once filled by Robin Williams.

Light humor is provided by the Maitre d’, Dylan Heinz (played by Michael Chernus-Orange is the New Black), who has a passion to share every detail of the meal as it is served, but who brings forth every blemish this high dollar restaurant seeks to hide.  In a way, the restaurant itself mimics some of the actions of the main players as it seeks to avoid whatever mistakes it makes, or when having to deal with it, puts on its best brave face to simply try to get through it.  When even the restaurant has an agenda, you know that you will most likely walk out of this movie with a less than rosy outlook on the notion that human beings are basically decent.

A lot of the argument of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Hobbes is played out around this dinner table as we watch these individuals trying to decide if people are basically decent, and it is society and circumstances that corrupt that goodness, or if people are basically bad and in need of society to lift them up.  This film may provide a third option, namely that people are basically bad and since society is made up of these same types of people, it is no wonder why it too is corrupted and rotten to the core.  The sad thing is that everything that is done throughout this film is justified, compromised, and argued away revealing the notion that we are blessed with so much privilege that even our blessings are made to serve our demons.

The Dinner contains a first-class cast who give incredible performances all around.  Steve Coogan, who is always brimming with smug humor around the various dinner tables he finds himself at in his incredible films The Trip, The Trip to Italy, and the upcoming The Trip to Spain, gives a wonderfully multi-faceted performance filled with layers of depth.  Coogan is truly one of the most underrated actors today, and deserves to be given many of the type of dramatic roles once filled by Robin Williams.

Despite excellent performances, this is one meal that will not “hit the spot”, and may leave one with more indigestion than savory flavor by the time the check arrives.  Much of this is due to the pacing between the constant flashbacks, and the immense hatred you will feel towards their collective children as you watch their deeds play out over the discussion at dinner.  There is ultimately no one good…not one.  That makes this meal a little bit hard to swallow.