Like the 2011 Steve Coogan movie The Trip, The Dinner is an examination of the frailty of the human spirit structured around the ritual excess of formal dining. Instead of a fictionalized version of himself, Coogan plays Paul Lohman, an unstable misanthrope who joins his wife, his brother, and his sister-in-law for an extravagant dinner at a fiendishly expensive restaurant to discuss a situation the two couples’ children have gotten themselves into. But unlike The Trip, there are no moments of levity or extended Michael Caine impressions to lift the mood. The Dinner is two hours of unrelenting nastiness, steeped in the trappings of extreme wealth and the toxic privilege it affords.
It’s a premise that feels inherently theatrical—two contrasting couples coming together in an enclosed setting to hash out an issue as things get increasingly fraught. (Yasmina Reza’s 2006 play God of Carnage has a similar setup, and also uses it to expose buried middle-class prejudices and resentments.) But The Dinner, based on a hit 2009 novel by the Dutch author Herman Koch, seems terrified of staying in one place for too long, and so its director, Oren Moverman, pads out the five-course meal with all manner of flashbacks and detours and meandering trips into Paul’s psyche. The growing tension in the restaurant is dispelled every time the action shifts course, meaning all that’s left is a series of unsurprising revelations about thoroughly unpleasant people.
The film’s tone is nothing new for Moverman, whose previous works excavate the dark emptiness of the American spirit: 2011’s Rampart starred Woody Harrelson as a corrupt cop, while 2014’s Time Out of Mind featured Richard Gere as a vulnerable man on the verge of falling into the cracks of society. In The Dinner, Gere plays Paul’s brother, Stan, a politician who’s running for governor of an unnamed state. Rebecca Hall is Stan’s wife, Katelyn, who appears to despise him even in their very first scene together. Laura Linney plays Claire, Paul’s wife, who entreats him to attend the dinner despite his hostility toward his brother because she’s desperate to eat at a restaurant they could otherwise never get into or afford. Adding to the erratic pacing of proceedings is Nina (Adepero Oduye), Stan’s chief of staff, who rushes in periodically with phone calls and updates about a bill he’s sponsoring in Congress, and which seems unlikely to pass.
Like the book, The Dinner is organized around the various stages of a gourmet meal: aperitifs, appetizers, entrees, cheese course, dessert, digestifs. The restaurant Stan has chosen is absurdly, comically upscale and pretentious, which only makes it seem more inappropriate as a setting, especially as the nature of the evening’s discussion becomes clear. The server, played perfectly by Orange Is the New Black’s Michael Chernus, expounds on course after course of decadent dishes featuring foams and edible flowers and soils. And as the audience gradually learns what the two couples’ teenage sons have done, the juxtaposition of the dinner and the crime becomes ever more appalling.
This is deliberate: Moverman wants to emphasize the corrupting nature of privilege, and how easy it is to see yourself as above the law when your every whim is otherwise catered to in a hierarchical society. The pomposity of formal dining, with its obsequious service and obsessive attention to comfort, is meant to show how removed from the world Stan has become. But the issue is that Paul, a former high-school teacher, is infinitely nastier and more superior, despite his self-aggrandizing resentment toward his brother. The movie also spends most of its time inside Paul’s head, as chaotic and unsympathetic a place as it is. Without the constant cuts to scenes in Paul’s past (including a truly overlong and ill-conceived interlude set in Gettysburg), The Dinner could afford more time on its supporting characters, played by talented actors who are utterly wasted.
The boys’ crime, too, is beyond heinous—an offense so brutal and shocking that you can’t fathom why everyone present hasn’t called the cops already. Affluenza is one thing; psychopathy is another. Again, it might be more effective if the incident were related by the four characters from their (biased) viewpoints, rather than seen by the audience in all its high-definition horror. It’s easy to imagine how parents might persuade themselves that up is down to protect their children, but it’s less conceivable to see Linney’s character, for instance, take such an abrupt ethical turn when the film has spent so little time introducing her.
The Dinner is the rare film that would benefit from being less cinematic. More psychological probing of its characters, with fewer oversaturated flashbacks and jarring sound effects, might offer more analysis of how its seemingly decent characters are actually monsters underneath. But as is, it’s simply one of those excruciating events that brings relief when the evening ends.