Adapted from the bestselling novel by Dutch author Herman Koch, The Dinner opens with ex-history teacher Paul (Steve Coogan) trying to negotiate his way out of a scheduled dinner with his older brother, a Congressman (Richard Gere) campaigning for the governor’s seat. Paul’s wife Claire (Laura Linney) is having none of it, as there’s an important family matter that needs to be discussed involving a horrific act perpetrated by their teenage son and the Congressman’s two boys.
Astute viewers will be able to piece together the details of that act – which begins with an assault on a homeless woman that escalates into something far more sinister – long before the film reveals the grotesque details. But even more ghastly are the lengths to which these wealthy parents are willing to go to obscure the crime and keep their over-privileged children out of harm’s way – after all, these boys all have bright futures, and there’s no reason to jeopardize that over a little mistake, right?
This feels especially disgusting in the wake of the Brock Turner story, where a Stanford University student served only three months in jail after sexually assaulting an unconscious woman. The judge decided that a lengthy sentence would have “a severe impact” and “adverse collateral consequences” on Turner, who was a promising athlete on the school’s swim team. And let’s not forget Ethan Couch, the 16-year-old drunk driver who killed four people and injured nine others, but was given no jail time after his attorneys successfully argued that he suffered from “affluenza,” which caused him to equate wealth with privilege and have no understanding of the consequences of his actions.
The Dinner lays bare some of these very same arguments, and the results are sickening to behold, especially as we begin to learn the secrets that each person at the table is keeping from the others. All four of the leads (Rebecca Hall plays the Congressman’s wife) are fantastic here, and if The Dinner were focused solely on their meeting in the back room of an exclusive restaurant, discussing the fate of their families while being presented with fine wines and gourmet cheeses, it would likely have been spectacular.
Unfortunately, director Oren Moverman’s adaptation frequently pivots away from the main plot to focus on lengthy flashbacks to Paul’s nervous breakdown and subsequent struggle with mental illness, which are no doubt meant to provide more context for his contentious relationship with his older brother, but only succeed in grinding the film’s pace to a halt just as things begin to heat up. The result is a two-hour film that feels like twice that length, with huge stretches of meandering material that does almost nothing to serve the narrative, and which survives solely on the strength of its performances.