Rated R. Running time: 2 hours
Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 5; Language 6; Sex/Nudity 2.
Our star rating (1–5): 4
Meanwhile, when the crowd gathered by the thousands, so that they trampled on one another, he began to speak first to his disciples, ‘Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees, that is, their hypocrisy. Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops.’
The titular dinner is at a palatial restaurant so fancy that the waiter treats the courses as if each were a work of art. As four assistants parade up to the table and lay a dish before the four patrons, he describes it as if he were a docent, naming the ingredients and their provenance. Clearly, this is a culinary haven for the rich and powerful. However, throughout the film (the divisions of which are named after each course, from aperitif to digestif) none of the four members of the party are able to enjoy the meal. They have gathered to discuss far weightier matters than food.
Paul Lohman (Steve Coogan) and his wife Claire (Laura Linney are meeting with his brother Stan (Richard Gere), a U.S. congressman who is in the midst run for governor. His 2nd wife Katelyn (Rebecca Hall) is the fourth member of the party. Paul, a misanthropic former history teacher is there under duress because, as will see in flashbacks, he grown up always in the shadow of his high-achieving brother, but the reason for their meeting is too serious for him to stay away.
Their two teenaged sons are in trouble, deep, very deep trouble. The two boys had been out drinking at a party with friends and had come upon a homeless woman wrapped in a blanket trying to sleep in an ATM booth. Irritated, the teenagers had ordered her out, but she had refused to move, whereupon one of the boys had lighted a match and set her afire. The kids actually laugh as she burns up, regarding their deed as a prank. One of them had made a video and posted it on the internet. Now the fully sober sons are looking to their parents to get them out of their scrape.
Paul and Claire want to cover up their son’s crime, whereas Stan, surprisingly, talks about holding a press conference at which he announces his withdrawal from the campaign and then standing by their sons as they face justice. Katelyn, who realizes full well she has served as a trophy wife, castigates Stan, reminding him how she had taken over the raising of his son and being the dutiful politician’s wife for years. Paul and Claire are equally as vociferous in condemning any admission of guilt on behalf of their children.
The battle of words rages back and forth over the different courses, as well as in different rooms of the old mansion housing the restaurant. The class prejudice of Stan’s three opponents are revealed in their arguments about sacrificing the future of their sons for the sake of a homeless woman who should not have been in the ATM shelter. We witness the enormous capacity we have of self-deception and the old argument of a good end justifies. At this table we can see Cain justifying his murder of Able; of King David covering up his murder of Urriah; or to jump ahead in history, of President Nixon covering up the Watergate burglary. Will Stan be able to stand up against the onslaught of the three, or will he become like the Roman politician Pilate and cave in to pressure of others?
The film also can be seen as an interesting study of Paul’s character, one shaped by his boyhood in which he always played second fiddle to his brother and regards the world with deep cynicism—indeed as a student of history, he sees the Battle of Gettysburg as a metaphor of the world. A flashback to the brother’s touring the Gettysburg National Military Park, consisting of a montage of shots of the pair and numerous statues (some faces of the combatants in close-up), monuments and graves, is a powerful sequence.
You might have to search for this film on the internet because it played for just a week or two in a Cincinnati art theater before closing. This despite the excellent and well-known cast–Steve Coogan, Laura Linney, Richard Gere, Rebecca Hall, and an excellent supporting cast. The characters become such toxic examples of what once were called the 1% that this film fare might be indigestible for those who prefer a happy hour film, but nonetheless leaves us with plenty to chew on long after the dishes are cleared away and the screen fades to black.
This review with a set of questions will be in the June 2017 issue of VP.