Thursday, November 16, 2017

THE DINNER...(new on Netflix)

Movies taking place around a dinner table generally bog down into long monologues where the characters argue about one thing and then another. You know that every character seated at the table will get a chance to blab, and before the movie is over each will get a moment where they stand up, show some anger, reveal their secrets. It's a genre, usually indulged in by young playwrights who are trying their own version of Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, without having the life experiences or emotional facility to draw from. Oren Moverman's The Dinner, based on a novel by Herman Koch, isn't exempt from the worst of the dinner drama cliches but, because of a few good performances and the gorgeous camera work of cinematographer Bobby Bukowski, rises above the predictable mess it could've been. I can't quite recommend the movie. I can't say it's bad, either. Like all of Moverman's movies, it's not necessarily there for your enjoyment. His characters aren't meant to reflect your own phony image of yourself.

In The Dinner, Richard Gere plays Stan Lohman, a budding congressman whose son and nephew have committed a horrible crime: they set fire to a sleeping homeless woman, recording her death throes on their smart phones as they laughed. Stan's brother Paul (Steve Coogan) is the father of the more vicious of the boys. Stan arranges a dinner date at an exclusive restaurant so he and Paul, plus their wives, can discuss what to do about their sons, who haven't been caught. The story rolls out gradually with many subplots, the main one being  Paul's deteriorating mental health, and his grudge against Stan, the more glamorous politician brother. Stan wants the boys to pay for their crime. Paul's wife (Laura Linney) fears what might happen to them in jail. Meanwhile, Stan's wife (Rebecca Hall) doesn't want anything to interfere with her husband's run for congress. She put a lot of time into this guy, after all. Around and 'round they go.

Meanwhile, as the family argues and hisses, a series of entrees are brought out to their table and described in detail by the maĆ®tre d'. It's not clear whether this is meant to be a satire on the eating habits of the affluent, but the courses look ridiculous. One looks like asparagus tips served on a bonsai tree. The Lohamns fight, eat, and fight some more. Meanwhile, in flashback scenes, we see the boys killing the homeless woman. The kids in the movie are pure shits, heartless and arrogant, though Paul's wife insists they are "good boys" who simply made a mistake. Paul, who hasn't been taking his medication, can't focus on the situation. He amuses himself by insulting the waiters. Stan, in turn, is distracted because his assistant keeps interrupting the dinner with phone calls, the important ones that politicians always get at dinnertime. 

The Dinner isn't Moverman's best, though it's tempting to say it's worth watching becaue of Coogan's portrayal of Paul, the edgy loon of the Lohman family. To say this, however, isn't quite true. The Dinner has too many storylines, too many flashbacks, and eventually falls into the same routine as all dinner movies, where each character gets a turn to be dramatic. Moverman wants all of the characters to state their cases, but their arguments are frail.  One can imagine a movie being made that focuses solely on Paul, and how this damaged character navigates a family tragedy. Coogan, who gets better as he matures, could've carried it. He's very fine here, all sharp edges and frayed wires, and even though Gere is watchable as always, it's Coogan who steals every scene, playing the kind of unpredictable character John Cassavettes used to play. Moverman tends to draw good performances from actors, or maybe he simply gives them a chance to do things they don't ordinarily do, as he did in Time Out Of Mind (2014) where Gere played a homeless man, and Rampart (2011), where Woody Harrelson played an unhinged L.A. cop. Moverman's movies may be hard to like, but I haven't disliked any of them.

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