Uneven as a drama, the emphasis on language is euphoric for this critic facing a summer deluge of explosions.
Director: Oren Moverman (The Messenger)
Screenplay: Moverman, fro Herman Koch
Cast: Richard Gere (Norman), Laura Linney (Mystic River)
by John DeSando
By any standard, The Dinner is an exercise in indigestion, two dysfunctional sets of parents try to figure out what to do about the crime their two young sons have committed. While the dialogue is not as bright as Edward Albee’s in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, or even the similarly plotted Carnage, the staging is much more open, giving the sense that we can freely indulge allegory and perhaps lay the proceedings on our own door steps.
The parents hope no one will find out about the crime. Except that there is a video an adopted African-American sibling made and is thinking of blackmailing them. For the adults, the situation endangers their own lives, which could be forever changed with the disclosure.
The central conflict of wills takes place in an impossibly posh restaurant, with course descriptions about the length of a short essay, and where the high price of the meals pales next to the price everyone at the table will pay.
Stan Lohman (possibly suggesting the doomed Willy Loman from Death of a Salesman), played elegantly by Richard Gere (in a successful time of his career considering the recent release of Norman), is a congressman running for governor and on the eve of passing mental health legislation. Because his brother, former history teacher Paul (Steve Coogan), has mental issues, the legislation has more importance than usual. Paul unfortunately sabotages every conversation with rants about the world, as such also a danger to the good will of the audience which must endure his diatribes.
The better angel of this verbal slug fest, the congressman, considers jettisoning his political future for the sake of his son’s future mental health, i.e., telling all to the press. Although he is not blameless in life, the others are deplorable in their self-serving arguments.
His wife, Clare (Laura Linney), and sister in law, Katelyn (Rebecca Hall), try to dissuade Stan, while Paul gradually drifts away through madness or willful ignorance. Regardless, writer-director Oren Moverman does an effective job keeping track while he cuts from dinner to the boys with their crime and to those who leave the table for periods of time.
Although I’m not sure the writers want to move too obviously in favor of Stan’s moral high ground, they do persuasively show the tangled web deceit weaves as well as the corrosive nature of silence. For this word-loving critic, the emphasis on dialoge is nectar considering the blockbusters I must endure this summer.
Because this entertaining stage-like drama moves in and around idealism and pragmatism, it’s nice to know that some family problems are almost unsolvable, if not downright intractable. Welcome to our collective American dinners, where even unspoken words are time bombs.
John DeSando, a Los Angeles Press Club first-place winner for National Entertainment Journalism, hosts WCBE’s It’s Movie Time and co-hosts Cinema Classics. Contact him at JDeSando@Columbus.rr.com