The Dinner

September 8, 2017
Some gruelling courses at this dinner party
Some gruelling courses at this dinner party

After watching Steve Coogan send up his own dramatic aspirations in The Trip to Spain, it requires a conscious readjustment to accept the tortured, bipolar character we meet in The Dinner. To play history teacher, Paul Lohman, Coogan not only has to find an American accent, he has to exude bitterness and self-pity in every speech. The dry wit we associate with Coogan’s comedy has been replaced by a murderous sarcasm that makes him insufferable to everyone apart from his wife, Claire (Laura Linney), who treats him like an invalid needing constant care.

Oren Moverman’s film is based on a best-selling novel of 2009 by Dutch author, Herman Koch. The action has been relocated from the Netherlands to the United States and the dramatis personae tweaked to accommodate the new setting, but the basic plot-line remains intact: Paul and Claire are meeting for dinner with Paul’s older brother, Stan (Richard Gere), and his wife, Katelyn (Rebecca Hall), to discuss a matter of grave importance.

At the heart of the story is a huge moral dilemma: “How far would you go to protect your kids if they had done something really, really bad?” The conversation is no dispassionate seminar. As the evening progresses from one course to the next, skeletons are dragged out of the closet and angry words exchanged.

Paul can barely conceal his loathing of Stan, a high-flying congressman currently running for governor. Stan is everything Paul is not: smooth, personable, ambitious, a man who understands the deals and compromises of politics, and takes care of his public image. By contrast, his brother is an abrasive, would-be intellectual who brandishes his opinions like a blunt weapon. He’s unstable, quick-tempered and seething with resentment, viewing Stan’s success as an affront to his own failures.

Claire seems at first like a study in forebearance, but soon reveals a steely persona of her own. Katelyn is Stan’s second wife and former staffer, but she has grown impatient with the exigencies of politics and with her husband. She has invested a lot in Stan and doesn’t want to see him fall before the finish line.

The scene is set for the kind of dinner party one recalls from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), where Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton showed a pair of newlyweds how marriage can degenerate into a bloodsport. The difference this time is that the dinner revolves around a single issue that is almost too painful and difficult to discuss. Every historical grudge and recrimination gets an airing while the antagonists skirt around the problem that has brought them together, a problem that urgently needs to be resolved.

Stan’s choice of restaurant adds an element of absurdity to the evening. It’s one of those ultra-expensive places where every course is served by a troupe of waiters and introduced by the maitre d. The dishes sound like elaborate parodies of what passes for haute cuisine today. Thumbelina carrots? Burnt pumpernickel soil? What about a taste of the Bayley Hazen blue from Vermont?

The snobbishness of the place and the obsequious nature of the staff bring out the demons in Paul, who sees the venue as a calculated insult that emphasises the gulf between the two families. At one point he suggests going for pizza.

We gradually realise that Paul is not simply obnoxious, he’s mentally ill. Moverman makes the point in heavy-handed fashion by including an extended flashback to a trip the brothers made together to Gettysburg. Paul has an obsession with Gettysburg, the bloodiest battle of the American Civil War. It doesn’t require a psychoanalyst to see that for him the conflict is not between the North and the South, but between himself and Stan.

After any number of distractions, we finally learn that the Lohmans’ teenage sons have committed a truly horrible crime which has been videoed and posted on the Internet. The first problem is whether it’s possible for them to be indentified or not. The second is whether they need to take responsibility for their actions and go to the police.

Both sides of the argument are canvassed, with each participant showing a side of their personality that was not obvious at first. Can basic morality be argued away by privilege and power? To what extent are the parents responsible for the callous indifference of their children?

There’s a gripping story in this, but if you’ll pardon the expression, Moverman makes a meal of it with his flashbacks and psychologising. There are already more than enough themes and subplots for two movies, and he insists on adding further twists.

The persistently overheated exchanges, and the way characters keep wandering away from the table, makes the evening drag on interminably. As none of the diners are particularly likeable we begin to resent spending so much time in their company. If viewers stay till the end, it’s only because the big issue of the night still awaits a resolution. And perhaps to see what’s for dessert.

The Dinner
Directed by Oren Moverman
Written by Oren Moverman after a novel by Herman Koch
Starring Steve Coogan, Laura Linney, Richard Gere, Rebecca Hall, Adepero Oduye, Michael Chernus, Charlie Plummer, Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick, Miles J. Harvey, Chloë Sevigny
USA, rated M, 122 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, 9 September, 2017