The Dinner is the 21st film I’ve seen in a movie theater this year, and it is by far the one I’ve come closest to walking out of. In fact, halfway through the film I noticed an elderly couple making their exit, shaking their heads like people who didn’t know what they’d signed up for. They never came back, and I envied them. I too had had enough of director-writer Oren Moverman’s (Love & Mercy) pretentious bullshit and endless parade of remarkably detestable characters acting out their extreme white privilege.
Of course, that’s entirely the point of the film. The story, as implied by the straightforward title, revolves around Steve Coogan (as a high school history teacher suffering from an ill-defined mental illness) and Richard Gere (as his Congressman brother and gubernatorial candidate) having a dinner together with their wives (played by Laura Linney and Rebecca Hall) at a seriously high-end restaurant serving increasingly ornate but deeply stupid meals. As their stories unfold via heavy-handed flashbacks we learn the true meaning of their get-together is to discuss what to do about their sociopathic 16-year-old sons whose cell phone footage of their assault on a homeless woman has been posted online. Their faces aren’t visible in the video meaning if the parents do nothing the kids might just get away with it.
It’s a very Trumpian movie, or at least that’s how Moverman likes to put it. As he told Variety’s PopPolitics podcast:
I think something in this era — people talk about post-truth, but it is also post-humanist in that way. The humanism that is at the core of society keeping it together, moving toward better and better solutions for people in their lives… are kind of out the window. There’s a lot of self-preservation, a lot of self-interest dictating policy and I think that is at the core of some of these characters’ behavior.
And it’s okay to make a movie about terrible people making terrible decisions. Such a depiction of the deplorable can reveal darker truths about humanity, making for an unpleasant viewing experience but an ultimately interesting film.
The Dinner certainly has the “unpleasant viewing experience” part down, but I don’t know that it’s actually all that interesting, offering little more than surface level insight and a far-too-delayed morality play which seems to be saying, “These people are selfish monsters. Isn’t that fascinating?” Nope. It’s not. Not on its own, at least.
Moreover, Overman can’t seem to pick a lane. Is this is a film about mental illness, or is it about broken adults with fractured relationships coming together to save their kids even though it’s probably too late for all that? Overman does both, devoting an inordinate amount of screen time to Coogan’s discomfort in the present and mental deterioration in the past. However, using Coogan’s insufferable character to shine a light on mental health awareness is a confounding decision because he Never. Stops. Talking. Or complaining. Or…well, complaining some more. Or cutting off every single comment someone makes at the dinner table with an insult or passive-aggressive aside. Even when he’s not talking we still have to listen to his sporadic narration, but it’s never actually clear if he’s talking to us or to himself or recalling pages from the book he is writing.
Simply put, he’s an asshole. An asshole whom we gradually learn from the flashbacks is suffering from a mental ailment and has a complicated history with his brother, but an asshole nonetheless. As such, there is no more satisfying moment in the entire film than when Rebecca Hall simply, directly and forcefully tells him to shut up, and then he actually complies. However, that doesn’t happen until nearly 90 minutes into this two-hour film, by which point we’ve had to sit through a hilariously horrible and astonishingly self-indulgent flashback visualizing Coogan’s obsession with The Battle of Gettysburg as a symbol of his mental breakdown.
It’s enough to force people to walk out of the movie early, no longer giving a shit what these terrible people do about their terrible children. It’s a shame because once that much-delayed climactic conversation finally happens you do at least get to see Richard Gere, Laura Linney and Rebecca Hall delivering fearless performances. But by that point you’ve long since started rooting for food poisoning to take all four of them out, and slightly detest that these talented actors would take part in such a mean-spirited film.
THE BOTTOM LINE
This should have been a simple morality play about four people meeting in a public space to discuss a single subject, but director-writer Oren Overman’s bungles it spectacularly, delaying the narrative via a non-stop merry-go-round of interruptions (from waiters to the maîtred to Gere’s assistant notifying him of yet another urgent phone call) and flashback detours into Coogan’s history with mental illness before arriving at a laughably heavy-handed ending. It is the most frustrating viewing experience I’ve had with any movie this year, and I wouldn’t wish that upon any of you.