In case anyone still doubted that Steve Coogan possesses serious acting chops, Oren Moverman’s The Dinner is here to prove you wrong. Coogan might not receive top billing, but he truly leads the stellar cast in this intense chamber drama currently on at the Tribeca Film Festival.
The Dinner comprises the world’s most uncomfortable evening out, as brothers Paul and Stan Lohman (Steve Coogan and Richard Gere) and their wives Claire and Katelyn (Laura Linney and Rebecca Hall) meet at a high-class restaurant for a long meal and an even longer talk. Paul is a retired history teacher whose sovereign contempt for almost everyone, especially his elder brother, drives the beginning of the narrative. His wife Claire manages him, but only just, but her apparent good nature conceals an intense protectiveness bordering on obsession.
On the other side of the table is Stan, a glad-handing politician currently running for governor, and his second wife Katelyn, a somewhat reluctant mother to his three children, none of whom are hers. To put it mildly, problems involving the couples’ two eldest sons percolate just beneath the surface, further poisoning the fraught adult relationships. Conflict, interrupted conversation, and bits and pieces of the past begin to filter through the dinner conversation, as the relationships between the family members are dissected, old wounds opened, and new wounds made.
The Dinner’s success or failure depends on the performances of the four leads, and thankfully, there’s not one who disappoints. Coogan carries much of the first half of the film as the apparent narrator (in a voiceover that’s abandoned following the first act), and then as the central focus of the flashbacks. His mental problems and issues with his family, especially his brother, are slowly revealed without totally unpacking their origins, lending a psychological verisimilitude to Paul’s apparent contempt for the world.
Lingering in the background is Stan, who functions as Paul’s antagonist, fairly or unfairly, and Claire. Claire’s an unknown quantity almost until the end of the film, when Linney’s performance suddenly breaks free of its binding and becomes stark, brilliant, and terrifying. The family dynamic is so complex, so deeply confused and ever-shifting, that as its dysfunction comes more and more to the surface, it’s hard to know who – if anyone – to root for. Yet all the actors make their characters sympathetic (which is difficult in places), forcing the audience into an alliance with first one and then the other without establishing a biased paradigm.
The film layers event on top of event, the complex psychologies and sicknesses of all involved evading simplistic analysis. The most powerful sections are the dinner scenes themselves, which are incredibly realistic and force the audience into the position of observers at a very intimate family conversation. At times the camera dwells on moments of awkwardness or anger to the point of pain, lending further verisimilitude to a narrative the delves deep into a family’s psychology. Nothing is really going to be solved in this film, because the people involved are far too enmeshed in their individual perspectives.
The Dinner’s weakness lies in the copious use of flashbacks and the abandonment of certain techniques – such as Paul’s voiceover narration – without much clear thematic reason. Although the flashbacks serve to develop familial relationships and individual problems, the sheer number of them wind up breaking into the more tense moments of the dinner scenes, forcing the audience to re-orient themselves in new spaces before being whipped back to the contemporary moment. This is particularly jarring in the use of flashback that focuses on the two sons – the reason for the dinner – as it completely departs the perspective of the other characters. A jaunt to the battlefield of Gettysburg, presented as an important turning point in Paul and Stan’s relationship, is another odd departure that largely falls flat in developing thematic meaning.
But The Dinner’s greatest difficulty lies in maintaining tone. It opens with an almost lurid depiction of the courses of the meal, shot in extreme close-up, and the bursts of soundtrack feel out of place with the actual intimate rhythm of the film. While there are certainly moments of humor and nearly camp extremity – especially in the presentation of the meal, superintended by the officious maître d’ (Michael Chernus) – the film is hardly lurid. At base, it’s a deeply psychological descent into the lives of some troubled, but not outlandish, people, all of whom are attempting to fulfill their psychological needs and to protect their loved ones, sometimes at the expense of morality or justice.
Much like its subjects, The Dinner is an imperfect film, occasionally lurid and maudlin, a trifle overlong, but fascinating to watch. By turns uncomfortable, shocking, and even funny, The Dinner overcomes its occasional problems to deliver a deeply troubling and twisty treatment of class and family, and the mental gymnastics we will go through to justify (and protect) those we love.
An imperfect but fascinating film, The Dinner's stellar cast delivers a deeply troubling and psychologically complex treatment of class and family.