The Dinner takes as its central conceit a trip to a fine dining restaurant, but this is no gastronomical delight: it’s a soggy blancmange of disparate ideas and directorial excesses, destined to leave you with indigestion.
It follows two warring siblings, Paul and Stan, played by Steve Coogan and Richard Gere, and their respective partners Claire and Katelyn, played by the eminently capable Laura Linney and Rebecca Hall. With a cast like that, you’d think it would be impossible to create such an unbearable casserole, and yet here we are, choking on the bitter taste of wasted talent.
It’s based on a Dutch novel, but it owes more structural allegiance to the theatre, with the majority of the action – and 90 per cent of the bearable portions – taking place in a single restaurant. The four “acts” are introduced by the arrival of a different, willfully obnoxious course, with obsequious waiters – who would never get a job in any fine dining restaurant I’ve eaten in – introducing dishes including “burnt pumpernickel soil” and “infamous” varieties of cheese.
It becomes clear that Stan has called the meeting to discuss some unspeakably horrific event that’s eating away at the family. Paul, who suffers from an undisclosed mental illness, is not well placed to deal with the situation, and it doesn’t help that Stan also happens to be running for governor, which requires him to repeatedly leave the table to take terribly important phone-calls.
Coogan, a well-established master of impersonations, is inexplicably hopeless at delivering his lines as a New Yorker, sounding like he’s perpetually fluffing a Woody Allen routine. That his accent is, for no discernable reason, far stronger than the actual Americans around him only highlights the problem.
While the actors are individually engaging enough to carry the restaurant scenes, the action flutters aimlessly between flashbacks, most of which add little, most notably a protracted sequence set in Gettysburg, where the brothers flesh out their familial angst against a stylised montage of war statues, which would seem heavy-handed in an undergraduate film assignment.
Director Oren Moverman has a long checklist of Important Topics he wants to cover: the ludicrously fancy restaurant is an obvious foil for the life of a homeless woman we find sleeping in a doorway, with the danger of unfettered privilege a running theme. He also makes a stab at exploring mental illness, hinting at the way psychological problems can be passed through generations. The vacuous nature of 21st century society and the cyclical nature of history both keep their engines running in the background.
But the issues are overshadowed by the fact we’re dealing with a pair of intensely unlikeable men and the women who, for the most part, unquestioningly prop them up. If this film were served in a restaurant, it would be sent back to the kitchen, and I’d be asking for the service charge to be removed from the bill.
First published in City A.M.