There are about three or four rich and provocative films happening on top of each other in Oren Moverman’s “The Dinner,” and any one of them — hell, any two! — would make a fine stand-alone work in its own right. But in its current state, this discordant mix of tones, themes and performance styles just doesn’t quite add up.
At once a darkly comic social satire, a pitch-black moral thriller and an earnest plea to recognize mental illness, “The Dinner” is a seven-layer dip overflowing with compelling individual ingredients that, when mixed together, make the finished dish awfully difficult to digest.
The film starts, anyway, as a fleet-footed dark comedy. Middle-aged misanthropes Paul (Steve Coogan, pulling off an American accent that sounds uncannily like Willem Dafoe) and Claire (Laura Linney, thankfully getting to sink her teeth into a role again) are off to the chicest restaurant in town for a meal they dread alongside a couple they abhor. That other couple? Why, it’s Paul’s brother Stan (Richard Gere) — that’s Congressman and soon to be Governor Stan Lohman to you — and his much younger wife, Katelyn (Rebecca Hall). The reason for this unwanted social call? As of yet, unclear.
Throughout its first third, “The Dinner” barrels forward on belly laughs provided by Coogan’s acid glare, Gere’s slightly tinned charm and writer-director Moverman’s pitch perfect skewering of pretentious modern gastronomy. (Linney and Hall get their times to shine later.) Moverman and cinematographer Bobby Bukowski (“99 Homes”) keep both the action and the actors rather dimly lit in the foreground, while bathing background surfaces in a garish neon glow, creating a somewhat unsettling, vaguely sinister look and feel less befitting a class-based comedy than it does a searing psychological thriller.
Indeed, that is exactly what the film becomes. Based on a best-selling book from Dutch author Herman Koch, “The Dinner” keeps a novelistic structure, offering a generous serving of flashbacks with every course of the meal. These flashbacks primarily flesh out Paul’s long history with mental illness and depression, and the reveal of Paul’s violent illness moves the film into darker waters. These revelations also completely reframe our understanding of the characters and their relationships to each other as this long and opulent dinner goes on, making us question premises we had initially taken at face value.
To quote from another famous dinner text – dayenu! If the film were just the exquisitely funny set-up followed by an upending, unreliable narrator payoff, that would be enough. But there’s a whole other element at play, one that reveals itself as Stan’s reason for calling this dinner comes into clearer focus. You see, there’s a third stream interspersed throughout the action of the film in both the restaurant and family flashbacks: the events of a single night, when the children of both couples drunkenly commit a heinous, violent act that gets captured on camera and uploaded onto the internet.
As it becomes clear that this dinner was called to deal with the fallout of this sick crime (which Moverman depicts unsparingly — there’s no ambiguity that these are some messed-up kids), the film shifts into third gear, becoming a kind of moral meditation on crime, punishment and consequence. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, especially since it gives able (and often criminally underused) actors Hall and Linney terrific scenes and really textured notes to play. It’s just that the film, with its fairly slight story, is simply not sturdy enough to handle all these weighty shifts.
Without exaggeration, “The Dinner” touches on themes of societal shame regarding mental illness, the lasting legacy of the Civil War, the nature of politics, race and racism in families, the American school system, upper-middle-class hypocrisy, the deleterious effects of the internet and so, so much more. To hear it described like that, “The Dinner” sounds like it should be the film of the moment, but for that to be the case, it would have to take some of those disturbingly relevant topics and actually say something about them. Instead it seems content to raise the idea, like another trending topic on Twitter, and then move on to the next one — the next Big Idea, the next tonal shift.
Though never boring — Moverman’s confidence and swagger behind the camera seems to grow with each successive film — there’s simply too much going on for any one (or two, or three!) ideas to develop. The effect is a film that seems overwrought and undercooked. You can never fault ambition but, dammit, if “The Dinner” doesn’t bite off quite a bit more than it can chew.
50 Actresses Over 50 Who Still Rule Hollywood (Photos)
These strong women have aged gracefully — while still governing Hollywood.
Aside from the fact that she's the only black woman to win an Oscar for Best Actress, she recently starred in "X-Men: Days of Future Past," "John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum" and two movies in the "Kingsman" series.
An accomplished SAG and Emmy winner, Davis starred in ABC’s hit series "How to Get Away With Murder" and the two "Suicide Squad" movies (including a 2021 sequel). She also starred in the 2020 drama "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom."
The Oscar nominee has been busy, voicing the mother in Pixar's "Inside Out," playing Cleo Trumbo in "Trumbo," and Martha Kent in 2013's "Man of Steel" and 2016's "Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice." She starred opposite Kevin Costner in 2020's "Let Him Go."
Taraji broke out in "Baby Boy," and has garnered recognition for her roles in "Hustle and Flow" and 'The Curious Case of Benjamin Button." She most recently starred in "Hidden Figures" and rocked everybody's world as Cookie on "Empire."
After turning heads in "The Passion of the Christ" and two of the three "Matrix" films, the Italian actress returned to the silver screen as a Bond girl in 2015's "Spectre." And then starred as Italian photographer Tina Modotti in the miniseries "Radical Eye."
The actress broke out in the late-'90s series "Ally McBeal," then starred in films like "Charlie's Angels" and "Kill Bill." In 2019, she wrapped a long run playing Watson in CBS' Sherlock Holmes series "Elementary."
Since her days as a "Friends" leading lady, Kudrow has been active in film and TV, playing characters in Netflix’s "BoJack Horseman," "Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising," the 2019 indie hit "Booksmart" and the Netflix comedy "Space Force."
After appearing in "Elysium" and "Carnage," the Oscar-winning actress took a break from acting and returned to directing with 2016's "Money Monster" starring George Clooney and Julia Roberts and an episode of "Black Mirror." She then appeared in front of the camera in 2020's "Prisoner 760."
With a career that spans four decades, Jason Leigh earned an Oscar nomination for 2015's "The Hateful Eight," then starred in shows like "Twin Peaks," "Patrick Melrose" and "Atypical" as well as movies like 2020's "The Woman in the Window."
Despite the 2016 cancellation of her short-lived sitcom "Angel from Hell," Lynch has made strides in the past few years, hosting NBC's "Hollywood Game Night" and earning Emmy attention for "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel."
Having appeared in both mainstream and art-house films, Moore received acclaim for her Oscar-winning performance in "Still Alice." She followed with showy roles in 2020's "The Woman in the Window" and Julie Taymor's "The Glorias."
Lorraine Toussaint (birthdate: 04/04/60)
Starting her career in theater before transitioning into film and TV, Toussaint has appeared in Ava DuVernay's "Selma" and the short-lived Fox series "Forever." She's also received praise for her work as Vee in Netflix's "Orange Is the New Black" and series like "Into the Badlands" and "The Village."
Though she's known primarily for her film roles, including her turn in Spike Lee's 2016 drama "Chi-Raq" and 2018's "Black Panther," Bassett is a TV regular, particularly in FX's anthology series "American Horror Story" and "9-1-1."
In addition to being a TV personality, a two-time Oscar host and an LGBTQ advocate, DeGeneres found time to reprise her role as the forgetful blue tang in Pixar's 2016 hit "Finding Dory," the sequel to 2003's "Finding Nemo."
The Georgia-born Oscar winner returned to film in 2012 after a seven-year hiatus, and has since had roles in "The Big Sick," "Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice," and TV shows like "Here and Now" and "Succession."
Russo, a Vogue model-turned-BAFTA nominated actress, juggled lots of roles in recent movies, including Marvel's "Thor," the neo-noir thriller "Nightcrawler" the Nancy Meyers comedy "The Intern" and 2019's "Velvet Buzzsaw."
The actress and producer has kept busy since ending her long-running daytime talk show, overseeing her OWN network and appearing in series like "Greenleaf" and movies such as "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" and "A Wrinkle in Time."
A well-known character actress, Steenburgen has appeared in several TV shows (Fox’s "The Last Man on Earth," Netflix's "Orange Is the New Black") and films ("Song One," "A Walk in the Woods"). She starred in the 2016 drama "The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea" and 2018's "Book Club."
One of the most recognized and active women working in Hollywood today, Streep is keeping her acclaimed acting streak alive. Recent projects include "The Post," "Little Women," Netflix's "The Prom" and HBO's "Big Little Lies."
The "Ghostbusters" alum has been in 12 movies since 2010, ranging from "Chappie" to "The Cabin in the Woods." She had a cameo in 2016's female-led remake of "Ghostbusters" and stars in James Cameron's upcoming "Avatar" sequels.
Since her breakout debut in Francis Ford Coppola's "The Godfather Part II," Coll has had recurring TV roles in shows like "Switched at Birth," "Glee" and "Teen Wolf." She starred as Alba Villanueva in the CW's "Jane the Virgin."
The Oscar winner is another one of Hollywood's biggest and most active actresses, including memorable turns in recent movies like the "Red" and "Fast & Furious" series as well as shows like "Catherine the Great."
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Nicole Kidman joins Robin Wright, Viola Davis, and Laura Linney among the stars making waves on screen
These strong women have aged gracefully — while still governing Hollywood.