The Dinner * ½ / *****
Directed by: Oren Moverman.
Written by: Oren Moverman based on the novel by Herman Koch.
Starring: Richard Gere (Stan Lohman), Laura Linney (Claire Lohman), Steve Coogan (Paul Lohman), Rebecca Hall (Katelyn Lohman), Chloë Sevigny (Barbara Lohman), Michael Chernus (Dylan Heinz), Charlie Plummer (Michael Lohman), Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick (Rick Lohman), Miles J. Harvey (Beau Lohman), Laura Hajek (Anna), Adepero Oduye (Nina).
Herman Koch’s The Dinner is a pitch black, cynical satire about awful people who do awful things. It is about affluence, and how that breeds apathy. It is told from the unreliable point-of-view of its main character, who can see how horrible other people are, but cannot see it in himself – even if the reader can. It is a novel about two couples who meet at a fancy restaurant to discuss something abhorrent their children did together, but spend most of the time doing everything except discussing it. The film version – it’s actually the third, as one was made in Koch’s native Netherlands, and another made in Italy (both unseen by me) – was written and directed by Oren Moverman, and for the life of me, I cannot figure out if Moverman didn’t understand the source material (which I find hard to believe – it isn’t overly complicated) – or else he got so wrapped up in trying to overcome the inherent staginess in the premise as well as straining to add some sort of historical resonance to the situation – that he lost sight of what the film was actually about. In short, I know what Koch’s novel was about – but I have no idea what Moverman’s film is about.
The film is about Paul Lohman (Steve Coogan) and his wife Claire (Laura Linney), who are going out to meet his brother, Stan (Richard Gere) and his wife Katelyn (Rebecca Hall). Paul and Claire’s son, Michael (Charlie Plummer) alongside Stan’s son from a previous marriage, Rick (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) did something terrible to a homeless woman sleeping in an ATM vestibule – and a video of them doing it has been posted online. No one knows that it was the boys who did it – yet – but this is not a secret it seems this family can keep (there is already blackmail going on, and other things, inside this family). If and when the truth is discovered, it could, of course, end with their children going to jail – and could cost Stan his rising political career as well. The film cuts back and forth in time – in deliberately jarring fashion – not just to their kids and that night, but also mainly to Paul’s past, which is marked by mental illness, and a few instances of violence of his own.
I’m not quite sure where it was along the way that Moverman lost sight of what the movie was about – but it was clearly somewhere in the writing process. The film has been transplanted from the Netherlands to America, which necessitated some changes to be sure – but the changes Moverman makes are odd to say the least. Paul was once a history teacher – and was working on a book about Gettysburg – and we get a long (long) flashback to him and Stan visiting the Gettysburg site as Paul was trying to recover from one of his breakdowns. Whatever Moverman is trying to say here, about America’s violent past, and its effect on the action in the present of this movie is lost on me (there is no real correlation between Gettysburg and affluenza, which is what the movie is about, that I can see). Moverman also makes the rather odd choice to make Hall’s Katelyn Stan’s second wife – we see his first, Barbara (Chloe Sevigny) in all the flashbacks – a detail that wasn’t in Koch’s book. I’m not sure what this accomplishes, rather than just adding another character to the narratives – and since it pretty much takes the film nearly 100 minutes of its 120 minute runtime to give Hall anything of interest to do or say, it really doesn’t work.
At the very least, The Dinner should work as an actors showcase if nothing else – but unfortunately, that doesn’t work very well either. Coogan is miscast as Paul – it is a very heavy role, and while Coogan is a talented actor, he doesn’t do well here. His American accent doesn’t sound convincing, and the narrative requires so many personality changes for his character, that its rather jarring (this is an instance of things working better in the novel than the movie – because in the novel, it’s his point-of-view, and we can tell that the way he sees himself, isn’t the way he really is – in the movie, it all looks the same, so he comes across as wildly inconsistent). Gere fares a little better as Stan – but I’m not quite sure that either he or the movie realize how awful a character he really is – he almost comes across as the good guy in the narrative – or at least the only one trying to do the right thing, but doesn’t make it clear how selfish his motivations actually are. The movie also skimps on the details of their children – Michael just coming across as a whiny brat, and Rick not getting almost any screen time (and the film, which follows the book’s example, and has Stan have another son – an adopted one, who is black, does nothing with that character, and fails to show the racism of everyone else in the movie. Yes, in the book, that adopted son is also a prop – Koch’s novel was hardly perfect – but the character at least had a purpose.
Really, the only ones who escape unscathed in the film are Laura Linney as Claire, and Michael Chernus as the waiter, who is remarkable at keeping things flowing through the awkward dinner. Linney is, of course, one of the best actresses working today, and she always finds a way to show that – which she does here as well, even if her character is not that unsimilar to her one in Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River (in that film, she only gets the one scene to show her true colors – which are more prevalent here).
The movie pulls its punches right to the end – it’s an abrupt ending, that doesn’t really offer anything resembling resolution, but also cuts out some of the worse things the adult character do in Koch’s novel. When the author saw the film at this year’s Berlin film festival, he didn’t go to the after party, because he hated the movie – and saw it as overly “moralizing”. I think Koch was being generous – in reality, the film is just a mess. It doesn’t know what its saying or what it’s about – and wastes a talented cast. Moverman is good filmmaker – this is his fourth film, and his other three are all excellent – but here, he clearly missed the mark.