It never bodes well when the author of the book upon which a film is based gives the end result a thumbs down. In this case the author was Dutch writer Herman Koch, the book is his 2009 drama Het Diner, and the film is the third version of the same story, The Dinner with Richard Gere, Steve Coogan, Rebecca Hall, and Laura Linney.
Besides transferring Het Diner’s setting from The Netherlands to America, Moverman has taken a further step by adding extra psychological layers to the characters and their backgrounds. Even though the setup is essentially the same as in both the novel and in the previous two big screen incarnations, it’s these added Americanized elements that shape character motivation in a way the author never intended. It caused Koch to avoid the after-party gathering in Berlin at the film’s European premiere this past February. He later declared the film to be the worst of the three, a statement admirable in its honesty, but not necessarily true; at least, not when viewed through the prism of a different culture, and therein lies the issue of alternate viewpoints.
The previous two versions began with the 2013 Dutch film which closely followed Koch’s novel; the second, a 2014 Italian production that altered plot points but kept the tone and the overall sense of Koch’s intended European cynicism. The third is the new American version, adapted and directed by Oren Moverman who worked with Gere on the recent drama Time Out of Mind in addition to writing the screenplay to the excellent Love & Mercy. Both of those films explored the issue of mental illness and how that stigma affected the motivations and actions of not only the lead characters, but of those around them. Moverman has done something similar with The Dinner, and it’s this approach to re-shaping motive and its resulting drive that not only angered the author but underlines the difference between story-telling in continental Europe and here in America; one can draw conclusions from a cultivation of immorality, the other needs a satisfying sense of reason to explain the behavior.
“I’m not going,” declares ex-history teacher, Paul Lohman (Steve Coogan) to his wife, Claire (Laura Linney). He’s referring to the dinner engagement at a swanky restaurant that his congressman brother, Stan (Richard Gere) has arranged for the evening. “It takes three months to get a reservation,” responds Claire, reminding her husband that strings were pulled to get a table. Paul remains unimpressed. “Can we just get pizza?”
Once both couples, Paul and Claire, and Stan and his wife Katelyn (Rebecca Hall) are seated, it’s obvious there’s more going on than just a small family gathering. “We’re gonna talk tonight,” states the congressman. “We’re gonna put it all on the table.” It soon becomes apparent that the issue of the evening revolves around their sons, two boys, age sixteen. Even though the brothers rarely see each other, their boys are both friends, and both have done something that needs to be discussed.
We don’t know what the boys have done at this point, but with a series of flashbacks, slowly their crime is revealed, and it’s horrendous; an obscene act of violence recorded on a cell then later uploaded by an unknown source on-line. The thing is, the boys can’t be identified, and so far, no one knows who they are. The point of the dinner is for the parents to discuss what occurred and to find out what their next move is going to be. As the evening continues, through more flashbacks and glimpses of past actions, family secrets are unveiled, Paul’s developing mental illness increases, and tempers flare.
What surprises the most is the reaction of the wives rather than the men. When Gere’s congressman appears to be taking an honest and realistic approach to what should be done, even though a political career could be at stake, Hall’s Katelyn is adamant that secrets need to be kept. And when Coogan’s psychologically damaged Paul asks, “What were they thinking?” Linney’s Claire is having none of it. “It doesn’t matter now,” she vehemently insists. “They are good kids and they took a wrong turn.” You can see with every fiber in her body, Claire wants this kept secret, ignoring the depth of her son’s depravity and intending to convince the other three that they should do the same. Katelyn, for different reasons, needs no convincing.
Of course, when we see the crime and how the boys committed it, plus their reaction to it, it was never a case of good kids taking a wrong turn. From the beginning, it was a savage, evil act, and the boys need to pay. But the film, like the book, is ultimately asking its audience the same question it’s asking its characters. In a civilized culture, four educated people are now faced with a problem that challenges their own sense of what is right, what is decent, and what is moral. If the parents speak out, the boys would go to prison, or worse. If they say nothing, no one would ever know. The question is, what would you do?
Author Koch’s objections has to do with this version’s outcome and how it gets there, its comment on American violence and the addition of mental illness affecting long-term conduct. It’s not what he intended, and his objections, if seen from his European point-of-view, are valid. But in an American society, which is decidedly different from its foreign, continental counterpart, behavior patterns and attitudes are simply not the same. It’s an uncomfortable, unsettling experience, and not one all audiences are going to enjoy, but director Moverman’s The Dinner works, and it works not only because of those narrative changes made in its telling from one foreign culture to another but because of four great performances from its principle leads.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 120 Minutes Overall rating: 8 (out of 10)