The plot of this sounds a bit like that of “Carnage” in that both films involve two sets of parents getting together to sort out a problem involving their sons.
But while “Carnage”, adapted from a stage play, was a tightly contained, witty and claustrophobic dissection of middle class morality, “The Dinner” based on a novel by Herman Koch and adapted and directed by Oren Moverman, is much more diffuse.
The dinner of the title takes place in a very posh and pretentious restaurant – the sort that serves tiny portions of expensive ingredients laid out on the plate like an art installation, with a maître d’ who insists on describing every dish in dreary detail. The film itself is even laid out in “courses” – aperitif, hors d’oeuvre etc. in what is an unnecessary and equally pretentious conceit, which adds nothing to the story.
The two couples are congressman Stan Lohman (Richard Gere), who is running for governor, and his wife Katelyn (Rebecca Hall) and Stan’s younger brother Paul (Steve Coogan) and his wife Claire (Laura Linney). Their sons have committed some initially unspecified crime which has found its way onto social media but the boys have not been named and, unless their parents force them to admit their guilt, they could get away with it. The object of the dinner is for the parents to decide what to do. But boy, do they spend a long time getting to the point. Koch’s novel is, I suspect, more interested in the history of the brothers and that is what the film devotes much of its running time to.
For much of that time the focus is on Paul, a former history teacher, who has descended into mental breakdown through his obsession with death in war, which may have originated in his childhood relationship with Stan. This is illustrated in elaborate detail in one of the film’s many flashbacks and wanderings outside the restaurant, when the brothers’ visit the Gettysburg memorial park. Despite the sometimes tedious nature of the character however, Coogan is very good in the role and engages our empathy.
The other parents don’t really get much of a chance to get to grips with their characters until towards the end of the film, when Gere, Linney and Hall seize the dramatic opportunity and the film leaps into life. And when we discover exactly what is the crime the boys have committed, yes, we are rightly horrified. The film does however take a long and meandering route to get there. And despite the elaborate nature of the meal, nobody actually ever gets down to eating their expensive dinner. Such a waste, not only of good food, but to a large extent of good actors too.