Adapting a book to film must be a daunting undertaking. Novels generally yield far more material than you'd ever have time for in a typical movie, making for some painful choices during screenplay development. Then, any book good enough to be considered for the leap to another medium likely has a legion of die-hard fans with such passionate attachments to characters and plotlines that they're just itching to hate every decision from initial casting to closing credits. And, film adaptations are a pretty mixed bag: for every "Bridget Jones's Diary" there's a "Bonfire of the Vanities"; for every "Doctor Zhivago" there's a "Dune;" for every "Stand By Me" there's a "Maximum Overdrive..." (I could go on, but I won't.) In fact, it's a wonder that studios put adaptations out with such frequency.
So, where does "The Dinner" from director Owen Moverman ("The Messenger") rate on the book-to-movie scale? Is it closer to "In Cold Blood" or "Interview with the Vampire?" (Sorry, couldn't resist one more.) Well, it's an intriguing story with a great setup: two couples meet for dinner to discuss next steps after learning that their sons have committed a terrible crime together. The nature of the crime isn't initially revealed, but it gradually becomes clear that the act was outrageous, sadistic, cruel... and caught on camera. At the moment the boys are anonymous offenders but that won't be true for long, and the parents need to agree on an action plan.
It's also not clear at first what the relationship is between the two couples. Paul (Steve Coogan, "Rules Don't Apply") and his wife Claire (Laura Linney, "Sully") are getting dressed for the evening, and while she's excited about a night out at a high-end restaurant, he's dragging his feet. They'll be meeting Stan (Richard Gere, "The Benefactor") and Katelyn (Rebecca Hall, "The Gift"), and it's obvious that Paul doesn't think much of Stan. He thinks the fancy dinner is Stan's way of showing off and putting him down.
Stan is a congressman, and throughout the evening he's continually interrupted by his aide who's tracking the vote count ahead of an important bill to be considered in DC the next day. These interruptions break up the flow of the story and also allow for flashbacks to the two boys and the crime they have committed. Another set of flashbacks sheds light on Paul and Stan's relationship and the source of the tension between them.
While small pieces of each story are uncovered there are corresponding revelations of character and connection based on the conversation around the dinner table. These are calculated to shift the audience's perception and loyalties, and they also serve as rich fodder for the four main actors. Casting is a strong suit here, and Mr. Coogan in particular is worth watching. He works beautifully with a character arc that begins by seemingly revisiting the type of amusingly sardonic social observer he portrayed so well in "Philomena," and concludes in quite a different place. Mr. Gere looks every inch the part of the ambitious politician, and also deftly handles the shifting dynamics that occur as the evolving backstory raises the stakes at the table. Ms. Linney is alternately sympathetic and severe as she fights for what she thinks is best for her family. And given less to do up front, Ms. Hall bides her time until the third act when she bursts forth with a fierce monologue that exposes the bitterness behind her seemingly-flawless façade, and proves that she can hold her own with these three seasoned actors.
"The Dinner" is challenging in that none of the characters is particularly likeable, though thanks to the effective performances they all have moments when they are relatable. The story's a conundrum, and it doesn't help that it does not conclude so much as end, and abruptly at that. In a way this sheds light on the effectiveness of how the story is framed: presenting the snapshot of these four characters at dinner rather than laying matters out in linear fashion from beginning to end keeps the focus on the relationships and family dynamics rather than the overall plot and the question of whether and how the boys will pay for their crime. But it's also confusing and frustrating for the viewer, and those who did not read the work on which "The Dinner" is based may find themselves wondering if the book ends in similar fashion or if the screenwriter simply walked away from the material.
It's difficult to say that "The Dinner" is an enjoyable experience, though the performances are worth viewing and there are some beautifully photographed moments, including gorgeous opening shots of rich, impossibly intricate desserts, and a lovely, wistful passage in the middle where Stan accompanies Paul on a trip to the Gettysburg battlefields to research a book he's working on. Those who wish to be challenged by a story that raises questions without providing neat answers will find value here, but others may find this offering indigestible.
|Movie title||The Dinner|
|Summary||Viewers tolerant of inconclusive endings may enjoy the performances here but others may find this offering indigestible.|