In the emotional potboiler The Dinner, Richard Gere plays Stan, a Congressman under a whole lot of pressure. His career-topping legislation is up for a vote tomorrow and he a few votes short. He’s navigating the perils of the 24-hour news cycle as he runs for Governor. And a scandal from his own family is threatening to erupt. It doesn’t look like he’s going to get much help from Kate (Rebecca Hall), his self-described trophy wife, who is very tightly wound.
Stan’s brother Paul (Steve Coogan) knows about pressure because his wife’s Claire cancer episode crushed him into a mental breakdown. He’s out of the asylum, but he’s still a basket case, clinging to a modest level of functionality. Claire (Laura Linney) is now able to run the family, and she’s a rock.
Now the four of them meet at an exclusive and trendy restaurant to discuss how to handle a family crisis. Paul can’t get over his resentment and jealousy of Stan. To describe the plot of the The Dinner as a family meal is like calling The Revenant the story of a hike in the woods. Accustomed to making deals in politics, Stan has to work things out with two hyper-protective mother bears and a volatile and hostile loony. Is Kate really shallow and brittle? She may surprise us as one tough tough-as-nails negotiator. And what is Claire really capable of to protect her child? The pressure builds and builds, all the way up to a shattering and ambiguous ending.
Coogan sheds his usual smugness and delivers a stunning portrait of mental illness. His Paul has the all-time movie meltdown in a high school classroom, and another amazing monologue given to an empty classroom. He has pathetically grasping conversations with a son who now only patronizes him. Coogan’s searing performance is reason enough to see The Dinner.
The Dinner is also a showcase for Linney, Gere and Hall. Adepero Oduye (12 Years a Slave, The Big Short) is excellent (and realistic) as Gere’s never-off-duty chief of staff. Chloe Sevigny nails a character who has the knack of saying exactly the wrong thing to defuse an awkward situation. The always interesting Michael Chernus provides chuckles as the restaurant’s ringmaster, who presents one pretentious course after another. The restaurant’s locally sourced and extravagantly presented food does look and sound delicious, even if each dish is so overly precious.
The Dinner explores a very thorny philosophical question: what is the parental responsibility to help a child who has done something unforgivable? Is it better to let him face harsh consequences, even if it will ruin much of his life? Or is it better to help him avoid those consequences so he can get a second chance at a normal life?
I went to see The Dinner because it was directed by (and its screenplay adapted by) Oren Moverman, and I very much admired Moverman’s The Messenger and Rampart. He has a gift for getting great performances from his cast and for portraying the moments in life that are the most emotionally explosive.