Oren Moverman’s latest movie is quite the challenge. It has difficult characters, discomforting dialogue, an intricate construction and spreads over two hours. Nobody can accuse The Dinner of being unambitious, but I would like to accuse it of being an ambitious mess. Thankfully, not an unbearable mess.
Although Richard Gere (Stan) headlines, it’s Steve Coogan (Paul), playing his brother, who appears to lead at the beginning. In an unexpected American accent, he narrates with misanthropic cynicism, as preparations for a dinner event are underway. The narration stops at some point and comes back randomly throughout the movie – just one of several small incoherences that make everything feel unusual. Stan and Paul’s relationship is strained, at best, while their wives Kate (Rebecca Hall) and Claire (Laura Linney) act as mediators. Some dark matter seems to have brought them together at an elitist restaurant boasting culinary lushness; a matter which unfolds at a slow pace, interlaced with Stan fighting to pass a bill in congress, Paul’s Gettysburg obsessions, their children’s suspect affairs, past personal traumas, all across several courses of an impressive sounding meal.
For a movie that desires to tackle the lofty theme of social divide, it starts out feeling very personal. As it progresses, it distances itself from Paul to focus on thr bigger picture and gravitate around Stan. It’s a difficult move to pull off, as some sense of alienation occurs in the viewer, who has to accept the deep flaws surfacing in the ‘object of attachment’. I felt a bit stranded, which culminated in a subpar ending.
But it wasn’t a complete shipwreck, as Stan, alongside Kathey and Claire, managed to wrestle my attention. Indeed, wrestle is the right word, in what turns out to be a less than peaceful digestif. The whole preachiness of the last thirty minutes or so is borderline crass, yet engaging, in a visceral kind of way. It’s a decent payout after ninety minutes of fluctuating intensity.
Do the themes and motives really blend though? It’s hard to find a ‘red string’ to carry you through, as Paul’s Hobbesian worldview overlaps with discussions of mental illness, political maneuvering and familial discord. You get pushed into finding personal interpretations to allegorical content, which is fun and rewarding, yet the movie proves heavy-handed in framing its moral questions and imperatives. Next to its schizophrenic identity dilemma, this just works against itself in the final scenes.
I really liked the intensity, the grotesque and obscene affluence entailed by the dinner scenes, even some of the almost derivative monologues. The interpretative freedom made some of the drearier moments worthwhile, but more cohesion and restraint would have transformed The Dinner into something quite special all around. In spite of the backlash it’s being served, Oren Moverman’s film is a worthwhile exploration into how messy holding yourself consistent socially and philosophically can be.