The Dinner

by Michael Cox

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday May 5, 2017

'The Dinner'
'The Dinner'  

"What were you talking about?" Stan Lohman (Richard Gere) says as he sits down to dinner with his family.

The table goes silent. "We were just enjoying one of those awkward moments," his brother Paul (Steve Coogan) explains; they weren't really talking about anything at all.

"Well, we're going to talk tonight," announces Stan.

And so they do. Throughout the course of this two-hour movie, the Lohman family talks about everything and nothing at all, as a complex, tangled plot unfolds about politics, lies, moral accountability, familial responsibilities, blackmail and the culinary arts.

The narrative follows a strict set of courses from aperitifs to dessert, but nothing is ever resolved. In fact, at the end of this meal we are left with nothing but an unsettled stomach.

It's somehow as though a group of very talented individuals decided that they wanted to make a movie with all of their favorite themes and ideas, and then they all tried to cram them into one narrative. Coogan has explored the story through food in his series "The Trip," and the humanitarian Richard Gere has deep political feelings about homelessness, which he has explored in personal projects, like "Time Out of Mind." This film tackles those ideas plus a host of other issues racism, politics, adoption, mental illness, affluenza, liberal white privilege, denial -- and even "the C-word."

It explains a lot that this film was written and directed by a Oren Moverman, a friend and collaborator of Gere, who worked with him on "Time Out of Mind." Moverman's first screenplay was an adaptation of Denis Johnson's novel "Jesus' Son," and like Johnson, Moverman explores narrative as a jumbled collage of ideas that refuses to organize itself or come clean.

It's amazing that this kind of narrative can get made, and Moverman takes a direct hit at Hollywood in his screenplay, which is adapted from a novel by Herman Koch. In it, Stan is a politician with infinite resources, running for office and championing a bill for mental healthcare. Paul is a public school teacher of limited means. He teaches history to apathetic teenagers and is trying to write a book about Gettysburg.

But Paul may suffer from mental illness, and his vibrantly colored visions of Gettysburg and his memories of teaching may be an illusion. Paul's wife Claire (Laura Linney) has a bizarrely intimate relationship with their son Michael (Charlie Plummer), a relationship that mirrors Stan relationship with his mother, at least as it is viewed by Paul.

Depending on whether or not the action of the film is happening in Paul's mind, Claire and Michael are hiding a big secret from Paul: Michael, who is only 16, is dating older women -- and he has sadistically murdered a homeless person. Meanwhile, Stan's adopted African-American son may or may not be blackmailing Michael, and Claire may be attempting to pay him off.

The narrative will never get any clearer than this, but there are some very interesting performances, including two from a pair of Stan's wives played by Rebecca Hall and ChloŽ Sevigny.

Bobby Bukowski's cinematography and Kelly McGehee's production design are garishly colored with dominant reds throughout, and the food porn is better described through dialogue than show onscreen.

This is a film that is appreciated more in subsequent viewings if you can make it through the first.