I once ate at an upscale restaurant in Chicago where each item was introduced to the patron before the food was prepared. Now occasionally I’ve seen the maître d' display cuts of meat, or point to your live lobster, and of course, the bottle of wine theatrically exhibited in a flourish. But never before had I encountered the pretension of a waiter bringing out a display of fresh vegetables, garnished to the hilt, then cooing, “This is the broccoli you’ll be experiencing tonight.” Food as post-modern performance art.
Herman Koch’s internationally best-selling novel The Dinner is now a film by director/screenwriter Oren Moverman (I'm Not There, Love and Mercy, Time Out of Mind). Both book and film highlight this eroticized fascination with restaurant food and presentation. Both intercut the evening’s gustatory gush with the back stories of how and why these four people have come together to break bread. Never have large white plates seemed emptier, notwithstanding the minuscule portions of warm goat's cheese served with pine nuts and walnut shavings. The empty plates reinforce the vast void of empty lives with no sure answers to moral, ethical dilemmas. This dark psychological thriller becomes a fierce showdown as knives are sharpened, motivations questioned, pretensions lacerated and relationships shattered.
Just an ordinary night at Denny’s it is not.
When Stan Lohman (Richard Gere), a popular congressman running for governor, invites his troubled younger brother Paul (Steve Coogan) and his wife Claire (Laura Linney) to join him and his wife Katelyn (Rebecca Hall) for dinner at one of the town’s most fashionable restaurants, the stage is set for a tense night. While Stan and Paul have been estranged since childhood, their 16-year- old sons are friends, and the two of them have committed a horrible crime that has shocked the country. Thank you, security cameras and YouTube. While their sons’ identities have not yet been revealed, and may never be, their parents figure it out, and must now decide what action, if any, to take. As the night proceeds, with plenty of shocking twists and revelations, the true natures of the four people at the table are upended.
The original Dutch novel is set in Amsterdam with a Dutch family in crisis over their teenage sons and their boorish, then criminal, behavior. The film moves the action to an unidentified city in the U.S., where the characters are absorbed with all sorts of familial preoccupations and political machinations that are particularly American. But what remains in the transfer from Dutch novel to American film is the hideously pretentious restaurant setting, and the family coming to grips with smug, entitled children who’ve made a huge, stupid mistake and must live with the consequences.
The thin veneer of middle-class respectability is stripped away as each person reveals just how far they are willing to go to protect those they love. What lurks underneath this veneer is not pretty.
These are not likable characters. Think of the shallow banality of Gone Girl and the moral bankruptcy of American Psycho along with the juvenile delinquency of God of Carnage, with a hint of the truth-telling games behind Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Now add the increasing darkness and pretension of The Dinner, and you have a rather miserable evening in the restaurant.
Is it also a miserable evening at the movies? You will have to decide that for yourself.
For sure, we are not supposed to ask why this personal, intimate, private family discussion is even held in such a public venue as this posh restaurant. Other than giving the politician brother running for office the chance to interact with a few potential voters, why try to talk here of deep-seated family issues while waiters and platters come and go? The confined setting, the increasingly irritating yet funny interruptions from the oleaginous maître d' (Michael Chernus in a deliciously hammy performance), the struggle to be controlled and moderated while everything around you is falling apart — they all add tension and breathlessness to the proceedings. I'm not sure a tense meal without breathing is the best for digestion.If there were ever an object lesson for Tolstoy's observation that happy families are all alike, but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, The Dinner is it. Their unhappiness is for sure a product of dysfunctional dynamics — parents who are at once over-protective and hands-off, brothers vying for bigger dick prominence, raw political ambition, and vicious criminal activity — as reported through the eyes of an increasingly unreliable, mentally unstable narrator. While waiters lurk, then glibly murmur of rosemary from Oregon, Greek olives from the Peloponnese, lamb's-neck sweetbread marinated in Sardinian olive oil with sun-dried tomatoes from Bulgaria, served on arugula, the foursome wrangle, and commiserate, cajole and accuse.
Talk about unique, and first world, unhappiness!
Our narrator Paul is a disaffected high school history teacher, conversant with fascism, both historical and in the classroom, so Tolstoy, and Marx, both get their nods. And in a bizarre, extended trip to Gettysburg, shown in a bleak, melancholic flashback where the brothers Paul and Stan ponder what to do about the family crisis du jour, they encounter a Civil War diorama and recorded narration all about a house divided that cannot stand. Has a film ever used so blatant a metaphor for what's taking place before our eyes? Still, it's an effective reminder of something Shakespearean — that is, how a personal, domestic crisis is reflected in a parallel national crisis. Gettysburg is at the core of the cancer that ate away at this country, and for Paul his own increasing instability and psychological distress comes to a head there on the battlefield.
Cinematographer Bobby Bukowski deserves credit for creating color schemes to support the shifting perspectives. Three primary visual styles — one for the restaurant, one for the crime, one for family history — are used to assist viewers find their way through the various, and occasionally muddled, shades of time, place and character.
Unlike high-end restaurant dinners that work their way from apéritif to appetizer to main course to cheese course to dessert to digestif (both book and film use this elegant narrative structure), all in a predictable pace and outcome, this film ends really without resolution or satisfaction, just sort of a falling off and fading away as the foursome debate and debate and debate the moral quandaries facing them.
Finally the screen darkens as we slide into the credits with the alternative/indie rock group Savages singing their lengthy and repetitive incendiary anthem, "Don't let the fuckers get you down." Good advice, whether meal or movie.