WARNING: This review contains spoilers.
Playing, over and over, the moment when two teenaged boys set fire to a homeless woman – at last, novelty on film. The Dinner, Oren Moverman’s adaptation of Herman Koch’s best-selling Dutch novel, is a film of staggering cynicism. It wants to be an entertainment as rich and delicious as the courses offered at the titular event, but offers lessons about privilege, politics, and being Richard Gere. It uses a murder for kicks. The result is a moronic film about morons that passes itself off as a film lecturing morons. I can’t wait to see how well it does at the box office.
Speaking in a Target brand “American” accent, Steve Coogan plays Paul Lohman, a former high school teacher with a history of mental illness; Laura Linney is wife Claire, whose specialty is Lady Macbething. The two meet Paul’s congressman brother Stan (Richard Gere) and wife Katelyn (Rebecca Hall, wasted again) at a mansion converted into a deluxe restaurant, the kind where an unctuous maitre d’ savors the descriptions like mints. I’m on record saying that we eat a lot better than our parents with their mayo-slathered ambrosia salads did, and we certainly appreciate a handsome hotel bar, but The Dinner makes you hate food. Using courses (appetizer, entree, aperitif, and so on) as chapters, Moverman creates recipes rich on the emulsifiers and adjectives. My favorite is the dessert, a melting chocolate egg with parsnip cake and grapefruit on Brazilian nuts, with edible flowers and nuts, topped with whiskey caramel sauce, and I’m sure I missed a warm cauliflower truffle oil ragu or three.
I’ve devoted so much space to the bill of fare because the rest of The Dinner boasts toxic levels of high fructose corn syrup. Ineptly juggling flashbacks and the present to create the illusion of movement, Moverman’s film has no cinematic interest in what is at stake for its characters; it wants to make points at their expense. The drunk teens, we learn, tossed lit matches at the woman while lying in one of those indoor ATM spaces. Eventually the gasoline tank comes out; worse, according to Moverman, is that the smart phones do too. Those amoral kids with their internet and their selfies (we know what Paul thinks: after remembering Gore Vidal’s grandfather’s name he mutters “Fuck Google” while canoodling with Claire). No witnesses means the boys got away with it, and that’s how Claire and Katelyn want it. Stan, running for governor, can’t sit still for dinner and conversations about his son and nephew before his officious assistant says he’s wanted on the phone. In one of those flashbacks Paul amazes his high schoolers with an incoherent monologue about victims in history who deserved to die. He also warns, “Don’t take a bullet for me! Ever!” as if they or we would, or as if we didn’t hope he would and stop this farrago.
Clocking in at a punishing two hours, The Dinner spends its last third chewing over the phony ethical questions raised by the kids’ act of sadism. “Phony” because there is nothing to defend – it’s a monstrous act for which they should be locked away. A better director than Moverman (he wrote 2015’s Love & Mercy) would have kept the murder offscreen so that the ninnies savoring their panna cotta or whatever could at least earn the audience’s ambivalent opprobrium; by cutting back to the crime, however, Moverman tosses us out of the movie. Thus, caring whether Stan will torpedo his own gubernatorial prospects for the sake of teaching his son a lesson in morality is an act of will, like driving home after three bottles of wine. Gere, at his best playing venomous snakes, turns into a TV actor when asked to make nice, although even the Gere of Internal Affair or American Gigolo would have needed gastric bypass surgery after offering pearls like, “There’s never a path that’s just right or wrong, just a lot of shitty choices; someone always gets hurt” (Coogan gets lots of his own pasty insights such as “It’s more selfish to have kids than not having kids”). I’d say send The Dinner back to the kitchen but I don’t trust the chefs.