Structurally choppy and overall rather unpleasant, The Dinner takes a potent problem—how far will parents go to protect their children?—and presents it in a sometimes confusing, sometimes simply tedious way. 2 out of 5.
Congressman Stan Lohman (Richard Gere) has a problem, so he's gathered his brother Paul (Steve Coogan) and their wives (Rebecca Hall and Laura Linney) to work through it over dinner at an upscale restaurant. Between several courses and interruptions from the staff, the brothers work past some long-simmering hostilities to discuss a violent incident involving their sons, who are good friends. As they sort through the ramifications of the incident becoming public, they wrestle with how to control the potential fallout—especially as it pertains to Stan's political future. No less than their sons' futures—and the future of each adult couple's relationship—depends on the decision the four grown-ups will make by the time the meal concludes.
Although it suffers from several fits and starts during its first hour, The Dinner delivers a dramatic payoff as the characters come to a decision point about their sons' crime. The acting from the four stars is effective, with the most vivid portrayal coming from Coogan, a comedian who showed earlier promise as a dramatic actor in Philomena. While the flashback structure hurts the film, the introduction of various sections of the story through title cards, each displaying the name of an individual meal course, is clever, and the lengthy descriptions by the maître d’ about the food being served grows increasingly amusing, even endearing.
By intercutting flashbacks with the main dinner, the story unfolds in unsettling fashion, but not in ways the filmmakers intend. The cutting and slow reveal of the incident involving the boys is less suspenseful than it is jolting, and in any case, the interplay among the four adults around the dinner table is more interesting to watch than the scenes from the earlier time frame. Coogan's American accent wanders in and out at times, but his character's inner tumult and frustration are so well conveyed that his vocal vacillations don't detract.
Christian Worldview Elements / Spiritual Themes
Owning up to one's failings is a potent theme, as is the responsibility of parents for their children's behavior. How far will we go to protect our kids, and when can we no longer dismiss a harsh incident as a simple youthful mistake? We all have mixed motives, and it's easy to justify doing what causes the least amount of pain. But what if avoiding the appropriate consequences for a child's behavior means that child ends up worse off than he would be if he faced the penalty? The Dinner tackles these questions head-on, and while faith and providence aren't major factors in the characters' decision-making (beyond one character saying, “we’re blessed” and Paul accusing Stan of wanting "absolution" rather than "forgiveness"), viewers—particularly parents—will wrestle with how they might react in a similar situation.
Paul also speaks bluntly about his sense of parental failure, telling his wife that it was "my job to take care of things" because "I'm the father." He adds, "A house divided against itself cannot stand," but makes no specific reference to the biblical source of that saying.
CAUTIONS (may contain spoilers)
- MPAA Rating: R for disturbing violent content, and language throughout
- Language/Profanity: “Go--amn”; “Jesus!” Multiple F-words and numerous uses of foul language. As the rating description indicates, there's "language throughout," including a scene of a teacher cussing at his students.
- Sexuality/Nudity: Kids kiss during a party; a husband and wife kiss in bed, and he rolls on top of her; a woman, seeing her husband close a laptop when she enters the kitchen, asks him, jokingly, "Porn in the kitchen?"
- Violence/Frightening/Intense: Boys attack a homeless woman, throwing trash at her and flicking lit matches at her while she tries to sleep; the homeless woman's bedding catches fire, and we hear her scream as the fire burns her just off-screen; a man strikes another man with a pot; a man physically threatens a child; a man is punched.
- Marriage: Frank discussions about whether to have more than one child, and about the pain of loss and divorce; discussion about attempting to get pregnant again.
Drugs/Alcohol: Drinking and drugs shown during a teen party; boys talk about wanting some beer; a woman smokes.
The Bottom Line
RECOMMENDED FOR: Fans of Gere, Linney, Hall and Coogan will want to see these performances, which are better than the overall film. Parents who are interested in dramas revolving around hard choices involving children may find the story more interesting than others will.
NOT RECOMMENDED FOR: Those troubled by watching couples argue and fight, and by family dramas that involve buried frustrations coming to the surface.
The Dinner, directed by Oren Moverman, opened in theaters May 5, 2017; available for home viewing August 8, 2017. It runs 120 minutes and stars Richard Gere, Laura Linney, Steve Coogan, Rebecca Hall and Chloe Sevigny. Watch the trailer for The Dinner here.
Christian Hamaker brings a background in both Religion (M.A., Reformed Theological Seminary) and Film/Popular Culture (B.A., Virginia Tech) to his reviews. He still has a collection of more than 100 laserdiscs, and for DVDs patronizes the local library. Streaming? What is this "streaming" of which you speak? He'll figure it out someday. Until then, his preferred viewing venue is a movie theater. Christian is happily married to Sarah, a parent coach and author of Hired@Home and Ending Sibling Rivalry.
Publication date: May 4, 2017
Image courtesy: ©TheOrchard