A Chilling Allegory
As parents, it is our job to protect our children at all costs, right? How far would your “Mama Bear” instinct take you in safeguarding your child’s well-being? Before you answer, you must watch The Dinner. What you witness in Oren Moverman’s adaptation of the best-selling 2009 Dutch novel by Herman Koch might change your answer. Or, at least, make you slow your roll a bit.
Moverman (who also writes) sprinkles these deeply thought-provoking questions amongst others, like “would you prefer the beef or the chicken,” and “which specialty cheese is to your liking this evening?” You see, his story is revealed throughout a discomforting dinner held at a ridiculously snooty restaurant attended by Paul (Steve Coogan), his wife Claire (Laura Linney), Paul’s brother Stan (Richard Gere) and Stan’s younger wife Katelyn (Rebecca Hall). The story isn’t really about food, although it is served up in several acts that loosely correspond to the six different meal courses – the Aperitif, the Appetizer, the Main Course, the Cheese Course, the Dessert Course, and the Digestif.
It’s not immediately revealed why Stan, a current U.S. Representative launching a campaign for Governor, has called the dinner, but via a series of frantic flashbacks, we learn that the couples’ boys have committed a horrific life-changing crime and the families are assembled to discuss the next steps.
Moverman has adapted Koch’s Dutch language book and “Americanized” its themes and dilemmas to play better to a U.S. audience. Though he hits most of Koch’s hot-button societal and political topics, a change was made with regards to a significant tonal shift away from satire towards dark drama tinged with a more deeply-seated meaning for this country.
Make no mistake though, plenty of sarcasm remains, mostly delivered by Coogan who steals the show as his Paul constantly pokes fun at the restaurant’s overt pretentiousness. But as his layers are pulled back, it becomes evident that he’s not well. He suffers from mental illness and, following a nervous breakdown while teaching high school history, he’s now left to deal with a perpetual black cloud hanging over him.
Coogan delivers a stellar performance. His Paul appears obnoxiously unlikable yet tons of fun to watch as his every comment is meant to derail any cognitive discourse. It’s not until the story really starts to unfold that we learn the extent of Paul’s debilitating illness. His depiction is simultaneously sad, real, and even humorous at times.
Not to be outdone by Coogan however is Gere, whose Stan harbors a deep-seated resentment for being the one to take care of a brother with a mental illness. Though he initially comes off as a controlling egomaniac, is it possible that he -- a politician -- may be the only one with a moral compass?
Hall and Linney have slightly less meaty roles but hold up their ends of the bargain, especially Linney who mesmerizes with her caring generosity, but who lets fly in a closing scene that really puts her skills on display. It’s not a pleasant sight what a mother can do when the claws come out, but it is fascinating to watch an actress at the top of her game. Hall comes across as definitely the fourth wheel here, but she shines in her bits as the archetypal politician’s wife.
However, the big star of the show is something that some will “get” and others will absolutely loathe. And that’s Moverman’s constantly shifting place, tone, and time that gradually navigate us through the ugly emotional history of everyone at the table. Despite a becoming facade of white middle class decorum, they are all deeply flawed people with lots of ugliness beneath the surface, but we soon land at a place where everything about everyone is laid out on the table... and it ain’t pretty. In fact, it’s all as schizo and floundering as the tormented thoughts running through Paul’s head, but once the dust settles, we’re left with a chilling allegory that asks all the tough questions about the brutal inhumanity that hovers just beneath the surface of white privilege.
You may think you know how far you would go to protect your children. But you really have no idea.
(Released by The Orchard and rated “R” for disturbing violent content, and language throughout.)
Review also posted at www.franksreelreviews.com.