There’s a real intensity to the subject matter of The Dinner, but I felt the whole time watching it that the movie never was as effective with that material as it could have been. It’s well done in some respects—the acting is particularly strong—but a story that could have been gripping throughout is instead only gripping sporadically.
Why? What’s missing, or what better choices could have been made? For me at least, the film is most compelling when it is addressing its core issue (two teenage male cousins, the son and nephew of a Congressman, while drunk abused a homeless person and inadvertently killed her, and now the two sets of parents are meeting at a super swanky restaurant to try to figure out how to deal with it), but much of the movie is spent on other, albeit related, issues. So the easy answer is that the film would have been stronger if it had not let its focus stray so often from the manslaughter and the cover-up.
But I hesitate to say that, because those other issues provide the psychological context that makes this a deeper movie than it otherwise might have been. Indeed, in retrospect if anything I find myself appreciating and thinking more about those other elements than I did when I was watching the movie.
A lot of the material feels like a tease though. It’s like there’s this horrific event and a taut, stressful meeting about whether and how to cover it up that occupies maybe 30% of the movie, and interspersed with that are little tidbits about these folks and their relationships that are suggested more than explored. There are incidents, lines, brief flashbacks, or elements that require even more inference and speculation than those, each constituting a piece of the puzzle. Some of those pieces are ambiguous individually, and collectively they provide only an incomplete picture.
So in that sense there’s less than one might want about the central issue and less about the related issues that could provide a greater understanding of the central issue. Does that mean The Dinner should have been substantially longer in order to treat all these matters more fully? Maybe. Or perhaps the storytelling could have been more efficient and accomplished more in the same amount of time. Maybe a more straightforward structure (the film jumps around chronologically, doling out its clues little by little like a mystery—not unlike the recent, very good, Manchester by the Sea) would have been more satisfying, at least for me.
But it’s interesting stuff, certainly, even if there’s a lot more that’s hinted at or dropped in without elaboration than fully explored. Among the contextual tidbits you’re given over the course of the movie that could potentially help you understand these people and why they’re doing and saying what they do and say are:
- The Congressman’s brother is mentally ill. The exact nature and severity of the mental illness are not disclosed, but little by little more evidence is provided.
- He and the Congressman have been in conflict all their lives, with the brother believing he was the victim of ill treatment, and that their mother always preferred the Congressman.
- At least once, as adults, the conflict became physical, and he struck and injured the Congressman.
- He can be a prig; part of how he distinguishes himself from his brother and thinks of himself as superior is by regarding his brother’s success in life as attributable to all the moral compromises he has made.
- Evidently their mother was mentally ill as well, which caused some of the family dynamics to be what they were, and led to the brothers interpreting those dynamics differently.
- Though mostly a bitter, curmudgeonly sort, he has a strong attachment to his wife and even a dependence, seeing her as the one person who has kept his mental illness from destroying him completely.
- Perhaps because he is aware how dependent he is on his wife, he is sensitive to any indication of inequality in their relationship, like if she makes decisions about their son instead of their making them jointly as equals.
- His wife is a cancer survivor. Her illness devastated her husband (during this time, the Congressman and his wife sought to have their nephew stay with them, since his father had seemingly lost his ability to care for him, a suggestion that he predictably reacted to with outrage), and has left him always trepidatious that she will relapse and be taken away from him.
- It was difficult for the wife to bear children, and a surprise that they managed to have even one. She is even more obsessively devoted to this child than parents typically are to an only child.
- The Congressman is in the midst of a political campaign seeking higher office, and of course a scandal in his family will derail this.
- The Congressman’s wife is a second wife, someone who was a much younger staffer of his and has had to deal with all the insinuations about being a trophy wife. Though the Congressman’s children are from his previous marriage, she has if anything overcompensated by becoming more attached to them and more involved in their lives than the typical biological mother.
- Though the teenage boys who committed the manslaughter may simply be run-of-the-mill spoiled rich kids, there is just enough evidence to make one wonder if the Congressman’s brother’s son, who was the much more active of the two in the incident, also suffers from the mental illness that runs in the family.
There’s more; that’s just a few off the top of my head. Though most of these and the other bits of information or hints provided are, as I say, not developed more than superficially, they do give you at least some insight into these characters and why they are reacting to the present crisis as they are. They give you plenty to think about.
I can’t shake the feeling that The Dinner could have been better than it is, but still I believe it is a worthwhile, intelligent film.