- Movie Rating -

The Dinner (2017)

| November 14, 2017

By coincidence, just an hour before screening Owen Moverman’s The Dinner, I was talking with someone about Pulp Fiction.  The conversation took on an impressed tone as we reminisced about how Tarantino’s masterwork was a high-wire act of narrative pretzel-bending; twisting and turning and reversing back on itself, returning to the beginning of a particular storyline after we have already witnessed its conclusion.  At the end of the conversation we breathed a sigh of relief that it worked so well and agreed that it could have been a confusing mess.

That, I’m afraid, is the fate of The Dinner, another high-wire act of narrative pretzel-bending; twisting and turning and reversing back on itself.  Only this time the results are frustrating not only because of the screwy narrative but because the characters involved are so dull and repugnant that we wouldn’t care about them even if the narrative ran in a straight line.

The centerpiece of the movie is, well . . . a dinner.  That’s nothing new.  Countless great dramas from My Dinner with Andre to The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoise to Big Night have centered on characters gathering for a nice dinner and conversation.  Only here, there is not really a dinner.  No one ever really gets to eat and the conversation keeps getting interrupted by outside life drama or an interminable series of flashbacks and that seem to come and go at will.

The central figure is high school teacher named Paul (played by Steve Coogan, sporting a rather stiff American accent) and his wife Claire (Laura Linney) having dinner with Paul’s estranged brother Stan (Richard Gere), a politician whose political campaign is apparently about to crumble to dust; he’s there with his wife Katelyn (Rebecca Hall).  The couples have gathered in a fancy restaurant to discuss an unpleasant matter: Paul and Claire’s son and his buddy apparently set fire to a homeless woman who was sleeping in an ATM booth.  Over and over we return, not to the crime itself, but to Pauls’ attempts to deal with what his son has done.

But, OH!  It’s not as clear as all that.  There are flashbacks to Paul talking to the boy about the crime (I think) but we aren’t always sure exactly at what point the flashback takes place, or if they’re even talking about the crime.  Those memories are inter-cut with other memories that may have something to do with the crime and may not, such as a bizarre trip that Stan and Paul once took to a Civil War museum; or memories about the time that Paul verbally unloaded on his bored students with profanity and “real world” advice.

Added to the confusion of the timelines is the also the struggle with the dialogue.  At times it seems out of step with what is happening, as if the characters are speaking in code; Other times they speak in such hushed tones that we strain to hear what they are saying to one another.

I think the point of the story (from what I could make out) was to focus in on how shallow and selfish people raise shallow and selfish kids who have no moral structure or guidelines.  That would be fine, but first we have to establish what we’re looking at and how it coagulates as a story.  There are narrative rules to be observed.

Here’s the curious thing: I was genuinely interested in the crime at hand.  I was interested in why a kid from an affluent family would end up setting another human being on fire.  But the movie won’t go down that road.  The crime is so horrible, I suppose, that Moverman didn’t want to look it squarely in the face.  He’s trying to be clever by bending his story around so that we can be “challenged” to figure out where we are and what we are seeing.  Personally, I didn’t feel like playing.  The story at hand is too serious for colorful Tarantino-style time-bending.  It might have been more approprate to drop the gimmicks and look the story square in the eye.  Deal with the human beings at hand and then decide if gimmicks are necessary or even appropriate.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2017) View IMDB Filed in: Drama