“The Dinner” – Look up “dinner” in the dictionary, and it reads “the principal meal of the day” and “a formal feast or banquet”. For most households, however, dinner has a larger meaning. It is a time when families congregate to share their experiences and feelings while also - functionally - breaking bread. Sometimes laugher fills these caucuses, but many times, family members toss issues on the table and either productively work through them or dive deeper into valleys of conflict.
For decades, television shows have featured American experiences at the dinner table, and one might find industrious communication on “The Waltons” or “Leave it to Beaver” or something altogether dysfunctional like on “All in the Family”.
Seriously, did anything productive ever occur when Archie (Carroll O’Connor), Edith (Jean Stapleton), Michael (Rob Reiner), and Gloria (Sally Struthers) sat down for a meal?
In writer/director Oren Moverman’s “The Dinner”, he invites the audience to a family affair, and his characters need to discuss an event. An event in which nothing good happened, and in fact, it is much, much worse than nothing good. The meal is not in someone’s home but in an exclusive French restaurant, complete with posh, dimly lit rooms, expensive wine lists and five-star menus. This is a place in which four servers and a maître d present every meal’s celebratory course. A place that serves diverse, intricate tastes like Thumbelina carrots, pumpernickel soil, Bayley Hazen Blue cheese, and bananas Foster without even breaking a sweat, but four patrons are certainly feeling pressure.
Brothers Stan (Richard Gere) and Paul (Steve Coogan) share some serious tension. Most of it emanates from Paul, as he regularly fires heaping amounts of disdain towards his brother, who is a prominent U.S. congressman. Prior to the dinner, Paul has zero desire to step outside of his home with his wife, Claire (Laura Linney), and spend any time with Stan and his wife, Katelyn (Rebecca Hall). He figuratively stomps his feet at his house, on the way to the restaurant and throughout the meal. Coogan is perfectly cast as Paul, dripping with sarcasm and out-of-line insults towards anyone - not named Claire – within his immediate view.
Those with razor sharp wit can verbally dance with clever, humorous banter, but Paul’s words cut with razor sharp blades that slash with direct intention to cut one’s spirit, one vicious, snide remark at a time. Paul is fascinating, because to the audience, we do not have insight into his motivations, and Coogan raises the intrigue for us to discover it. Meanwhile, Stan, Claire and Katelyn challenge his caustic remarks, but sometimes, they just casually accept his mean-spirited words.
Like it or not, Paul is emotionally damaged, and Linney’s Claire seems to have absorbed the negative energy throughout the years, like a victim slowly exposed to toxic radiation, day after day, week after week and year after year. Not enough exposure to kill someone at once - or even over a lifetime - but enough to wound one’s psychology and general state of peace.
The four enter this meal with baggage but must address a new a challenge, one also concerning family.
The next generation.
Moverman introduces this challenge over a cracked foundation of twisting quarrels. The film meticulously opens the mysteries to Paul and Stan’s history and their children’s (Rick, Michael and Beau) present through a slow burn, but sometimes the picture releases effective, quick-hitting explosions. We are teased too, as the dinner itself runs into several snags in navigating from one course to the next, and usually at least one person is leaving the table. One wonders if anyone will touch their food at all or even address the elephant in the room…that these four know all too well. We just guess.
After a while, we do not have to guess any longer. The exact reason for the dinner could completely blow up these nuclear families, and the fallout might never possess a half-life. This dinner will hopefully navigate the future, but when opinions are split - especially when it comes to the fate of one’s children - emotions run high.
“The Dinner” may or may not provide answers that the audience would like, but it addresses mental illness and the trials of parenting in a forceful way. The picture’s shrewdly-written script and top-notch performances effectively introduce the characters’ stressors, which are simultaneously both familiar and not fully understood to us. Then again, the concept of family is not complicated, although its mechanics are. This makes the potential for any evening meal – whether it consists of meatloaf or four courses – to become an involved and emotional experience.