Wednesday, May 10, 2017

"Our special tonight is roasted partridge with a lemongrass coulis, served with a goat cheese marmalade": "the dinner," acerbic and brutal

With his highly polarizing new film, "The Dinner," Oren Moverman has handily fashioned a rather brutal, fully-deserved attack on current American values that's at once elegant, acerbic and refreshingly languid.

And so it's no surprise that, after attracting much attention and admiration at the Berlinale (the Berlin Film Festival) in February, where it premiered, "The Dinner" is now at the mercy of provincial American movie critics who just don't "get it" and conservative movie audiences who clearly do.

At the performance I attended, the half dozen or so patrons sat there quietly throughout the entire film, only to boo and hiss when it was over.

One misguided woman actually demanded her money back.

These few moviegoers picked up on the film's message, perhaps only subliminally, but they caught what was clearly oblivious to the professional critics reviewing it, including - surprisingly - the almost always reliable Jeannette Catsoulis who wrote one of those brief, "let's get this one out of the way" reviews that The New York Times runs regularly these days.*

From where I sit, all this agitation over "The Dinner" isn't a negative at all.  It only means the film is clearly doing something right, pushing buttons.

And Moverman takes his time before he strikes, introducing us to Paul and Claire (Steve Coogen and Laura Linney) as they prepare for a night out with another couple at one of those comically pretentious restaurants that fetishizes food.  Paul, a contrarian and malcontent (after my own heart) really doesn't want to dine with "those people" - who happen to be his brother and sister-in-law, Stan and Kate (Richard Gere and Rebecca Hall).

He calls them "leeches."

The restaurant itself is a dark monstrosity - a cavernous villa, with all sorts of intimate nooks and crannies, where the specials are recited as if they were florid Shakespearean sonnets and where the servers (dressed like Bob Fosse dancers) walk, four to six in a line, carrying the treasured food in one hand, with the other hand tastefully pressed against their backs.

This is waitering as performance art.

The first offering, served on huge white plates, looks like strands of grass sitting on an artful drizzle of snot, topped with a miniature heirloom radish. This penchant for dining minimalism was perfectly captured in a hilarious 2012 essay titled "Tiny morsels arranged with tweezers," written by San Francisco chef /author Joyce Goldstein for the San Francisco Chronicle. 

The comic recitation of a restaurant's menu is something that director Mary Harron nailed in the opening scene of "American Psycho" in 2000 and that has seemingly been aped (and with a straight face) by newspaper restaurant critics. Although clearly not intentional, your average restaurant review in a big-city paper now reads like a humor column, what with its hilariously poetic description of dead fowl and bizarre sauces.  It's difficult to believe that anyone could top the absurdity of today's trendy, monied restaurants, but Moverman extends the joke, lacing it throughout his film.

Once the four principals are seated, we're given the impression that "The Dinner" might be a variation on Louis Malle's "My Dinner with Andre" (1981) - you know, a dinner conversation done in real time. But Coogan's troubled Paul instigates interruptions that guide us through a series of flashbacks which strive to explain the alarming reason for the dinner.

Gere's Stan is a U.S. Congressman who is accustomed to being in charge but can't control his mentally-ill brother's outbrusts.  The conversation takes forever to get started - or rather the revelation behind it takes forever to come out. Much like preparing a meal, Moverman slowly peals away layers, slicing and dicing his narrative. His source material is a 2009 novel by Dutch author Herman Koch, but Moverman doesn't divide his story into chapters but into food courses - L'Apéritif,  L'Entrée, Le Plat Principal, et al.
Moverman is testing our patience, just as Paul is testing Stan's.  The obsequious maitre d' and his staff are told to go away and we finally learn that these two couples have indulged children who did the unspeakable.

Stan, who is willing to sacrifice his career, wants his son and Paul's to own their horrible crime, but the others all are adamant about protecting the teenage boys at all costs, particularly Linney's Claire whose no-nonsense tiger mom devolves into a disturbing Lady Macbeth.  Now completely exposed, "The Dinner" can be seen for what it really is - a scathing, unapologetic attack on bad parenting that produces entitled monsters.

This is not exactly something that Americans want to hear, particularly during a night out at the movies, which explains the hostile reaction at the screening that I attended.  But Oren Moverman is not one to pander or coddle. And that's why "The Dinner" is never less than compelling.

And while all four leads are excellent, the film belongs to Steve Coogen, who turns in a major performance driven by both bravado and nuance.

BTW, this is the third time that Gere and Linney have starred together in a film.  Their previous films are "Primal Fear" (1996) and "The Mothman Prophecies" (2002).

Also, this is the third film version of Koch's book - the second remake of a movie originally made in The Netherlands in 2013 and, a year later, in Italy - all three films titled "The Dinner." The subject apparently is not unique to America but Moverman made his version uniquely American.

* Not all reviews of "The Dinner" have been tone-deaf.  Critics who have appreciated Moverman's bravado include Justin Chang of The Los Angeles Times, Owen Gleiberman of Variety and Boyd van Hoeij of The Hollywood Reporter. And full disclosure Jeannette Catsoulis is my favorite Times movie critic - not because we agree but because she's genuinely good.

Note in Passing: My good friend Marvin, who has seen all three films of the material, tells me that the mental state or instability of the brother (the Coogen character) is not addressed at all in the Netherlands version and that, while the Netherlands film is more plot-driven, the American film is much more political. Of the three, the Italian version is apparently less impressive than the other two.  Marvin is a huge fan of the Netherlands film but he "adored, adored, adored" (his words) Moverman's film.

I should add that Marvin has exquisite taste in movies.

And as for that woman who demanded her money back, she sat through every minute of the film and certainly got her money's worth.  One doesn't deserve a refund just because one is displeased with what's on screen.
*  *  *  *  *
~Top: The cast of "The Dinner" in a scene from the film
 ~photography: The Orchard 2017 ©

~Middle: Steve Coogan and  Rebecca Hall

~Bottom: Laura Linney and Richard Gere at an even for the film


Michael Neff said...

Excellent introductory primer to a difficult film, Joe. Thanks. I’m sending the link to all the movie-nut newbies I know.

Vanessa P said...

an incredible film. It seemed to American to me that I was surprised to learn it was a remake of two others from other cultures. Do you know where I can get the other versions?

joe baltake said...

Won't be easy, Vanessa, as they are not popular titles, but keep digging through the internet. I wouldn't mind seeing those versions either.

Alex said...

Sounds like "Billy Wilder Meets Otto Preminger." Which means it sounds great.

Brian Lucas said...

Joe- "The Dinner" doesn't stand a chance finding its specific audience if the critics aren't out there to point them in the film's direction. By and large, critics don't matter in the box-office success of a movie, except in a case such as this one. I hope that there are a few critics out there - influential ones - who come out and endorse it.

joe baltake said...

Brian- There have been critics who have praised "The Dinner." I've added links to those reviews at the bottom of my essay. -J

m.h. said...

Vanessa wonders where she can get the "other films." The Italian version, which is the weakest of the three, IS available on now. The Netherlands version is not.

Wade Scott said...

Joe, this movie sounds positively divisive, which means it's my kind of movie. I've seen Moverman's other films and was really intrigued by "The Messenger."

Christopher P. Fowler said...

Just saw "The Dinner" and liked it. A pop Freudianism dominates the film and is inseparable from everything else in it.

mike c. said...

Thanks, Joe! I'll definitely check it out.

Kiki said...

This sounds just like the kind of movie I would LOVE to see but won't come to Mexico. I have a better chance of seeing it on Air France where they have the best new and vintage movie. I never was a Richard Gere fan (maybe because I first saw him in terrible movies with Julia Roberts ) but on thinking about it, some of his later roles were better. Laura Linney is super.

Charlotte said...

Joe, I saw this movie based on your review. There was practically no one else in the theater and there was no reaction to it - at least, no negative reaction. I think the few people there like it. I know I did. I can't understand why an audience would be hostile to it.

joe baltake said...

This version of the material is rather anti-American, which I believe explains the resistance to it by not only critics (who seem to get dumber by the day) and audiences, but also The Orchard, the studio releasing it. (As I said, it had no advance screenings or reviews in the Philadelphia area.) I think people dislike it (and vocally so) because subconsciously they know it is anti-American. It rubs some people the wrong way without them knowing exactly why. They don’t like it but can’t really explain why they don’t like it. If you know what I mean. It’s a subliminal dislike.

Charlotte said...

I understand about subliminal dislikes, Joe. It could be that the prickly response to the The Dinner is that it hits too close to home and is making fun/humiliating the audience because it mirrors their own pathetic values. I remember the line in Pogo back in the 50s that went something like, "I have seen the enemy and they are us." Now I'm really raging to see it!

Sheila said...

I would love to see this movie. You wrote a well-thought-out review and didn't give away what the kids did that makes Gere want them to admit and that others want to sweep away.

As for those kind of restaurants, jeez, do I hate them! Do people still eat in places like that? And the idea of waiters with one arm behind them - well, I really thought that went out with the 90s.

I must add that I love "My Dinner With Andre." Remarkable film. Anyway, terrific review.