Monday, May 8, 2017

The Dinner

Roger Ebert didn't care much for The Dinner, a film by Oren Moverman, based on Herman Koch's 2009 Dutch novel of same name (subsequently translated into English and published in the US in 2013). But I have a soft spot for movies about politicians and/or family dysfunction. So I went to see it today. It is a challenging film to follow, but worth the extra effort. The original Dutch The Dinner was set in Amsterdam. The movie version is American in every way. It stars Richard Gere as Stan Lohman, a congressman and candidate for Governor and Paul Coogan as Paul Lohman, a retired school-teacher,  his somewhat estranged - and seriously psychotic - brother. Laura Linney plays Paul's wife. Rebecca Hall plays Stan's wife and Chloe Sevigny as his former wife and the mother of his children.

The film's name refers to the lengthy dinner the two couples have together at a ridiculously high-end restaurant. The meal and the pretentiously sycophantic staff are almost a parody of the absurd lifestyle of the privileged rich. But the purpose of the dinner is to discuss a horrendous crime in which their sons have been involved - a vicious attack on a homeless woman whom they set fire to in the ATM where she had sought shelter. While we become aware of this crime early on, the two couples don't actually get around to discussing it until much later. In the interim, we have numerous flashbacks highlighting Paul's psychotic episodes and his estrangement from his brother (who he believes monopolized their parents' affection). All this has obviously taken a toll on his family- notably on his son. Stan, the politician, besides running for governor is in the process of getting a mental health bill passed. He is someone who, as his wife says late in the film, is much better at governing than at parenting.

One expects Stan to come across as superficial and strategic. In some respects he is. But that is overshadowed by the psychotic and rude and otherwise dysfunctional behavior of his brother - both at the dinner and throughout the film's flashbacks. The two wives seem focused on holding things together - in particular, protecting their sons, regardless of what they have done.

Stan approaches the family crisis strategically - as he might approach a political problem. But his is the most clear-headed and clear-eyed perspective. Paul is too hopelessly resentful to function effectively as a parent, and the two wives are single-mindedly protective of their sons, who seem to be on the verge of getting away with their crime. Only the politician seems capable of looking at anything like a larger picture and at least acknowledging the crime's large moral and social complications. His conflation of morality with strategy leads to him to advocate a painful but more morally sound course of action. But, under pressure, from his wife, he temporizes. In the interim, even more tragedy ensues.

“They have their privilege and they have their lives, and they don’t really see other people as human,” is how Moveman characterized the characters on SiriusXM. “There’s a lot of self-preservation, a lot of self-interest dictating policy and I think that is at the core of some of these characters’ behavior. In a sense the film portrays the terrible human and social cost such a society exacts on all. Meanwhile the glitzy restaurant and its absurdist rituals of social status and privilege provide a kind of elitist entertainment that at some level tries to beautify the self-absorbed narcissism of the privileged and cover over their indifference to the wider world. 

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