Friday, May 5, 2017

Third Time Is *Not* A Charm For 'The Dinner'




This review originally appeared on SFist.com.

The Dinner is the third adaptation of Dutch author Herman Koch's novel to hit the screens since the book's 2009 release, and the first version to be set in America. I'll have to watch the Dutch and Italian versions before I can make a judgment on whether a good movie can be made from this book, because this version definitely isn't it.

Set in an unnamed New England city, the story centers on two married couples who are meeting for an expensive dinner, and their troubled teenage children, who are back at home.

Steve Coogan and Laura Linney are the first Lohmans, Paul and Claire. Paul is a school teacher and writer and Claire runs a "health center." They have one teenage son named Michael (Charlie Plummer). Paul is not looking forward to the dinner, mainly because it involves his brother, Stan.

Stan Lohman (Richard Gere) is a U.S. congressman married to his second wife, Katelyn (Rebecca Hall). They have two teenagers of their own, Rick (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) and Beau (Miles J. Harvey), an African-American youth Stan adopted with his first wife Barbara (Chloƫ Sevigny).

Paul does not like Stan one bit, and this at first could be chalked up to long-standing sibling rivalry, until we learn that there's not a lot Paul likes at all. He's a ranty curmudgeon with a huge chip on his shoulder. Claire, on the other hand, is at least enthusiastic about the restaurant, if not the company.

That restaurant turns out to be one of those obscenely expensive joints that serves eight course tasting menus with elaborate presentations (sauce poured from mini gourds!) and ridiculous ingredients (burnt pumpernickel soil!). It's also housed in an old candlelit mansion that would make an excellent location for an Eyes Wide Shut orgy.

While there's an ominous mood from the very beginning of the movie, it takes a very, very long time before the dinner guests finally reveal why they've gathered for a meal few of them seem eager to eat: It's to discuss something horrible their teenage boys have done, and how they plan to deal with it.

Director Oren Moverman drags out this reveal way too long by having the characters constantly leaving the table, either to take political calls (Stan) or just to be angry and pout (Paul). The narrative is further interrupted with flashbacks that go on way too long. (There's a ten minute flashback to a visit at a Gettysburg museum that is simply baffling in its length and indulgence.)

As a result, when we learn about the boys' actions it doesn't have the impact it should. Revelations about Paul's past are similarly ineffective. He's been such an intolerable asshole for much of the film that any sympathy the audience may have had for him has long been lost. Coogan was likely hired more for his comedic abilities than his dramatic skills, but the film is completely lacking in the dark humor it's clearly shooting for; Coogan's quips come off as unearned bitterness

Moverman worked with Gere in a previous film, 2014's Time Out of Mind, a character study about a mentally ill homeless man. Ultimately that film wasn't great, but it was filled with some interesting framing and camerawork. There's some similarly intriguing work in The Dinner, as Moverman places the camera far from his subjects, utilizing slow pans and zooms that keep them at a distance from the audience, a technique that brings to mind the work of Robert Altman.

The audio is also ambitious, with a constant hum of background chatter, ambient music, and, during one scene, the omnipresent "ping" of a character's iPhone, a sound that will no doubt cause numerous audience members to shout "Turn off your phone!" at fellow theatergoers.

But while technically interesting, The Dinner fails because of its choppy storytelling and the ultimate realization that almost everyone in it is a complete and utter nightmare, undeserving of our time, let alone our sympathy. When the noblest person in a story turns out to be a congressman, you know you're dealing with some truly horrible people.

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