‘THE DINNER’, starring Richard Gere and Laura Linney, serves a cold, raw dish

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Preston Barta // Editor

THE DINNER
Rated R, 120 minutes.
Director: Oren Moverman
Cast: Steve CooganLaura LinneyRichard GereRebecca HallChloë SevignyCharlie PlummerAdepero OduyeMichael ChernusSeamus Davey-Fitzpatrick and Miles J. Harvey

Among the injustices guaranteed to raise hackles is when a poster child commits a heinous crime, but escapes punishment with a mere slap on the wrist. Whether he or she comes from a family of wealth or political importance, or has the golden-ticket of opportunity to succeed in some promising field, these maddening cases illustrate the toxicity of privilege. It happens all the time, and it certainly has filmmaker Oren Moverman up in arms.

This concept is at the center of Moverman’s latest gritty drama THE DINNER, a thought-provoking look at how far parents will go to protect their children. While the film occasionally serves up too many undercooked ingredients, there’s a lot of genius to examine in what Moverman prepares.

If you look at Moverman’s other works such as THE MESSENGER, RAMPART and TIME OUT OF MIND (our review), all are dark, sometimes horrifying features that cause the viewer to reflect. His films are not your traditional sense of escapism. While they may occasionally entertain and have moments of laughter, Moverman constructs his narratives like profound literature – the kind of films you may not eat popcorn during, but the sort you may think about before you go to bed.

Oren Moverman’s films tend to be dark. ‘THE DINNER’ doesn’t depart from that mood. Courtesy photo.

“I’m interested in raising big questions,” Moverman said in a phone interview. “I come from a very serious world of Jews who escaped Europe, survived the Holocaust and are dealing with a lot of existential issues. It’s a background I can’t seem to shake. Put that together with a fascination of cinema and doing work that is more relevant to our world, and you’ll get the kind of movies I make, whether you like them or not.”

THE DINNER raises many compelling questions. The film’s story, which is based on a novel written by Dutch author Herman Koch, invites viewers to be curious: Two couples (Steve Coogan and Laura Linney, and Richard Gere and Rebecca Hall) dine together at a high-class restaurant. Through a series of flashbacks and uncomfortable exchanges, their polite discourse is revealed to be something much more serious.

Moverman originally penned the script for actress Cate Blanchett to direct, but scheduling conflicts arose, leading Moverman to also sit in the director’s chair. However, when it comes to Moverman’s directed features, his process as a writer never ends. As much as he appreciated the characters, the story and its metaphors in his early draft for Blanchett, he wanted to root the narrative in a larger truth for himself.

“It may have been enough to throw in class, white privilege, racism and hate crimes into the mix, but I couldn’t help myself by putting it all together in a mental health context,” Moverman said. “Doing that can create a work that can be overwhelming, but if you’re willing to engage with it, it can provoke something quite meaningful and personal.”

Packing all these topics into one story is simultaneously the film’s greatest flaw and greatest attraction. As Moverman said, jumping from one theme to the next can easily overpower audiences, but if the film didn’t peel back the layers of each subject in the manner that it does, it would lead to far less introspection on the shape of both country and self.

Stan Lohman (Richard Gere, left), a popular congressman running for governor, invites his younger brother Paul (Steve Coogan) and their respective wives (Rebecca Hall, right, and Laura Linney) for dinner at one of the town’s most fashionable restaurants, the stage is set for a tense night. Courtesy of The Orchard.

One of the film’s most compelling moments comes from the husband of one of the couples. Paul Lohman, portrayed by Coogan (a voice in the upcoming DESPICABLE ME sequel), makes a list of reasons why children’s interest in history and other school subjects cannot compete with today’s technology. While it’s obvious that social media websites and the latest gadgets hold our youth’s attention, Coogan’s character also places blame on Hollywood and its current state of film production.

“I aim to make movies with the intention of provoking and getting people to talk, think and feel. Movies on a large scale, they are pummeling you into oblivion – into this numb state of following,” Moverman said. “We all want to be entertained sometimes, and that’s perfectly legitimate because it’s a complicated and scary world we live in, but there’s also the possibility of being engaged in the world.”

At the core, this is what THE DINNER is about. It leaves you with questions about what it means to be human and what it means to apply your humanity to others. As fun as it is to watch superheroes save the galaxy, it’s not often that those films leave you feeling different about your surroundings like Moverman’s films.

Grade: B-

THE DINNER opens at the Angelika Film Center in Dallas tonight at 8 p.m. and other select theaters in the area on Friday.

About author

Preston Barta

Hello, there! My name is Preston Barta, and I am the features editor of Fresh Fiction and senior film critic at the Denton Record-Chronicle. My cinematic love story began where I was born: off planet on the isolated desert world of the Jakku system. It's there I passed the time scavenging for loose parts with my good friend Rey. One day I found an old film projector and a dusty reel of the 1975 film JAWS. It rocked my world so much that I left my kinfolk in the rearview (I so miss their morning cups of green milk) to pursue my dreams of writing about film. It wasn't long until I met two gents who said they would give me a lift. I can't recall their names, but one was an older man who liked to point a lot and the other was a tall, hairy fella. They got me as far as one of Jupiter's moons where we crossed paths with the U.S.S. Enterprise. Some pointy-eared bastard said I was clear to come aboard. He saw that I was clutching my beloved shark movie and invited me to the "moving pictures room" where he was screening the 1993 film JURASSIC PARK to his crew. He said my life would be much more prosperous if I were familiar with more work by the god named Steven Spielberg. From there, my love for cinema blossomed. Once we reached planet Earth, everything changed. I found the small town of Denton, TX, and was welcomed into the Barta family. They showed me the writings of local film critic Boo Allen. He became my hero and caused me to chase a degree in film and journalism. After my studies at graduate of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, I met some film critics who showed me the ropes and got me into my first press screening: 2011's THE GREEN LANTERN. Don't worry; I recovered just fine. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD was only four years away.

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