The Dinner, Oren Moverman’s adaptation of Herman Koch’s novel, suffers from a crippling identity crisis. The trouble comes from adapting a book so reliant on internal monologue and narration, then triying to transform the inward prose into something visual. It’s a collection of ill-fitting parts, tonal shifts, and a lack of focus that distracts from the compelling portions of the story and, ultimately, collapses.
The film follows Koch’s book faithfully, save for a few strange flourishes, but what works internally on the page feels disjointed and increasingly unnerving in all the wrong ways. There is a thriller at the core of The Dinner, but Moverman and Co. seem to lose interest in it from time to time. Steve Coogan stars as Paul, a former high school English teacher who suffered a nervous breakdown and is still lost in his broken brain when we meet him. He and his wife, Claire (Laura Linney) are getting ready to go to dinner with Paul’s brother, Stan, a Gubernatorial candidate played by Richard Gere, and his second wife, Katelyn (Rebecca Hall).
Only this isn’t a casual family get together, but a dinner with a purpose. It takes place in the most pretentious of all restaurants, a French “Food Art” palace full of the sort of elites Paul cannot stand. To be honest, Paul can’t take much. There’s also the little issue of the sons on each side, who teamed up to committ a horrific act of violence on a homeless woman, and the issue must be addressed.
At least that’s the motivation behind The Dinner, but the satirical restaurant is almost nonexistent through long stretches of flashback and baffling flourishes. The dinner goes through fits and starts all the way to dessert, each extravagant dish more “Mad-Libby” than the previous. Paul is a nervous wreck, Claire blissfully ignorant, Stan is perpetually pulled away from the table by his assistant, and Katelyn is on the verge of her own breakdown. It’s a great set up, but the film gets too preoccupied with Paul’s meltdown backstory to give the issues at hand the proper attention.
Paul’s troubles came when he went into a profanity-laced tirade in the classroom. It should have ended there in the film; it’s all we needed to know. Instead, we get an extended scene of Paul and Stan taking a therapeutic visit to Gettysburg that transforms into some sort of weird experimental montage of statues bathed in reds and blues with a suffocating voiceover from Paul, narrating battle notes or something. It belongs in a sophomoric Oliver Stone cover movie. This goes on for entirely too long, doesn’t make sense to be in the movie, and doesn’t add to the part we all care about: the story of the two boys and their awful crime.
The flashbacks to the teens’ outburst are disturbing and tense. These scenes take place in a thriller. But then Paul’s breakdown is all soft-focus melodrama, the restaurant satirical and frantic. And so we bounce from genre to genre, shifting tones, transitioning from soft lighting to harsh reds and yellows until we lose sight of any connective tissues. Individual scenes work along the way, some are shot in interesting ways, but they’re stuck in what feels like an unedited final product.
The Dinner is 2 hours of aimlessness when it should be a lean 90-minute story, focused and true to the thriller elements of Koch’s novel. The trio of Gere, Linney and Hall do fine work in one-note roles, and Steve Coogan is terrific as the aggressively twitchy unstable Paul. But even he feels like he’s coming from an entirely different story most of the time, and his history lesson voiceovers grow tiresome.
Perhaps not all solid thriller novels should find their way to the big screen.