Oh, how I loathed this movie. And it’s not just that I hated the characters in the film—I’m certainly capable of liking a work with bad people at its center—I just really hated spending time with these whiny, self-obsessed awful adults and their equally awful children. I hadn’t quite braced myself for the possibility that I wouldn’t enjoy writer-director Oren Moverman’s The Dinner for the simple reason that I’ve gotten behind his previous work (The Messenger, Time Out of Mind), and I tend to like the actors he’s working with here, including Richard Gere, Rebecca Hall, Steve Coogan, and Laura Linney. But something about this adaptation of the Herman Koch novel is so abrasive and trite that I wanted to slap everybody in it.
The Dinner is about a lot of things, all of which center around family. But mostly it’s about awful parents who bend over backwards to protect their children after they commit an unspeakable crime. The make excuses, lie about the circumstances surrounding the incidents, talk about protecting their kids’ futures, and do everything except hold their high-school-age kids accountable. Gere plays Stan Lohman, a politician on the verge of running for a very important office, who is married to Katelyn (Hall), his second wife, who has just found out about this crime when we meet her. Stan’s easily agitated brother, Paul (Coogan), is a teacher, married to Claire (Linney), and they too seem eager to sweep this incident under the rug.
Both couples have sons involved in the death of a homeless woman sleeping in an ATM kiosk to stay warm. They need cash, and she’s stinking up the joint. They throw things at her, kick her a bit, and call her horrible names, but she barely moves and just yells at them to stop. Then one of them starts flicking matches at her, one pours something over her body, and eventually they light her on fire, and flee the scene laughing. By sheer luck, the camera in the ATM is broken to the point where the boys’ faces are unrecognizable, so it’s effectively up to the families as to whether to turn the kids in or not. The boys make up a story about being attacked, and try to say they were just defending themselves, and while we know this isn’t true, the parents don’t and seem to lean on this justification for comfort. Before things get out of hand, they arrange a dinner for the four adults to talk about what steps to take next.
But long before we even get to the Big Decision, we must suffer through two hours of privileged people complaining about their lives, go through existential crises, rehash decades of personal problems that plagued their families since childhood (“Mommy liked you best!”) It turns out that Paul is actually somewhat mentally ill and taking meds for it, but that doesn’t stop him from complaining through every second of the movie about topics ranging from how much money this dinner will cost to how corrupt the government that Stan is a part of can be. According to Paul, the only person who ever really understood him was Stan’s first wife Barbara (Chloë Sevigny), who is only seen in flashbacks.
The resulting film and the characters are all patchwork versions of real life and people. Nothing about this film feels genuine. What might have been a fascinating, compelling discussion about how these kids were raised and what about their upbringing would have made them think doing something so unspeakable was okay, instead we get interrupted fractions of conversations all over this exclusive restaurant. Why not sit everyone at a table, force them to look at each other and face who they really are, and let’s see how that plays out? Nope, instead we get a film that might seriously make your experience watching it a contest to select who you hate more: kids or parents. I’m not giving anything away to say that one of the four parents wants to do the right thing and turn the kids in, and the way the other three go after him is repulsive to the point of being laughable and certainly unbelievable.
The Dinner is a junk movie with garbage characters that taught me something I knew plenty about already: that people are selfish, horrible, occasionally evil things in the world and can justify any behavior if it impacts them directly. If this were a film examining that phenomenon, I might be recommending it. But simply giving us four examples of it isn’t a movie; it’s a mirror.
The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.