The Berlinale has, so far, featured two films in competition about politicians arguing over the course of a dinner (or an intended one, anyway). While Sally Potter’s The Party is occasionally clumsy, it is also outrageously funny and a world away from the absolute slog that is Oren Moverman’s The Dinner. The most compelling reason to watch this overripe mess is to work out how on earth it ended up in the competition at this festival.
The menu, at least, is appetising. For one thing, it stars Laura Linney, always a promising ingredient. We’re promised a tense, four-parter as a politician, his misanthropic brother and their other halves debate what to do about the fact that their sons have done something unthinkable – and have been caught doing so in blurry camera footage. It’s an enticing prospect and has the potential to be a quick and greasy meal that leaves you full but feeling a little bit queasy.
Instead, The Dinner is as overblown a film as the multi-course tasting menu that the characters barely eat. (It’s worth noting how little the actual dinner bears any impact on the plot. They may as well have been rock-climbing). Instead of an excoriating, to-the-point examination of privilege, Moverman’s film attempts to take in a hundred other themes, none of which are explored enough to be satisfying. Mental health, race, American history and cancer are just a few of the spices added to the dish, ultimately creating a tasteless stew.
This wildly over-reaching plot is further made worse by its sloppy presentation. Most of the film consists of people walking in and out of rooms to then have a conversation in a different room. It’s so clumsy that it quickly grows tiresome. Particularly irksome is that the focal point of most of those conversations is Steve Coogan’s Paul, a man so bilious he moves swiftly past interesting and straight into unbearable. Coogan’s snidely mannered performance doesn’t help matters.
Moverman is entirely reliant on flashbacks, a heavy-handed storytelling device at the best of times but here is so overused that it becomes increasingly difficult to focus. A howlingly terrible mid-section wander around Gettysburg is so pompous that the entire film passes from being irritatingly smug into an outright failure.
Unfortunately, this comes before the film’s one saving grace. As anticipated, Laura Linney is the best thing about The Dinner but she isn’t used fully until the final courses of the meal. When she’s allowed to go full throttle into her character, revealing how active a player she has been so far, the audience gets a small taste of what the film could have been. With a steely glint in her wide eyes she slowly takes control of the other characters and the film itself. Here, the themes of privilege come to the forefront of the screenplay and all the nonsense from before is forgotten. It’s a thrilling but all-too-brief moment, a mere digestif to cleanse your palate from the tasteless sludge that’s gone before.