“The Dinner,” a new film starring Richard Gere and Steve Coogan, is about a very serious conversation that takes place in a restaurant with very silly food. Or at least, that’s how some might see it. The restaurant is an object of mockery for its over-the-top presentations, like this description of one course from the maitre d’: “The ladies are having our young winter roots. There are chioggia beets, Thumbelina carrots and purple radish that’s served with a goat cheese and smoked herring vinaigrette. There’s also a few charred leeks, radicchio, blood orange, and it’s sprinkled with a burnt pumpernickel soil.”
But jokes about pumpernickel soil might hit a little too close to home in their imitation of other full-of-themselves dining destinations where reservations take months to acquire and every course comes with a small dissertation on the food.
Director and screenwriter Oren Moverman wanted “to create a place that was absurd, but just plausible enough that it exists,” he said, taking inspiration, in part from chef Dan Barber’s Blue Hill at Stone Barns. “We talked about an eccentric billionaire that was going to have a restaurant that would be curated on every level.”
The film, adapted from a Dutch novel, tackles the family dynamics between two brothers who have come to the restaurant to figure out the path forward after they discover their sons have committed a terrible crime. They also have to work through their sibling rivalry: Paul (Steve Coogan, taking his best shot at an American accent) feels like his brother Stan (Richard Gere) is the golden child, and Stan is burdened by Paul’s history of mental illness. Complicating matters, Stan is a congressman running for governor (so, the fact that he would discuss such a private matter in a restaurant is also pretty absurd). Paul’s wife, Claire (Laura Linney), and Stan’s younger, second wife, Katelyn (Rebecca Hall), are along for the ride.
The book was published in 2009, and when Moverman adapted it, he brought along the descriptions of the dishes, pretty much verbatim.
“I’m not a foodie, I have to confess. I’m not refined that way,” he said. So it took the services of culinary consultants Jae Song and Paul Yee for him to realize that the dishes were “very nineties.” Song and Yee conceptualized a menu based on the themes of the story.
“They basically said, you have a story here about generations and connecting with them, parents and children. We want to create dishes that play with that” — like guinea hen served with yolk — as well as dishes with a little mystery, “that would open up and reveal things inside,” like a melting chocolate egg dessert.
But the descriptions of the dishes, from an overzealous maitre d’ played by Michael Chernus, are built up for comedic effect. Like the cheese course, for which Chernus’s character delivers the following monologue, in the vein of every overzealous waiter you wish would just go away:
“Please stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but I am a cheese fanatic. I could talk about this for hours. Literally, I could tell you the names of the cows. You seem like very nice people, so I don’t want to bombard you, unless you ask me to … starting by region, from Vermont, this is a Harbison cheese. It’s a very gooey cheese, if you cut it in half, it will spill out, so you need to make an incision on the top rind and eat it with a spoon or with a fork. Also from Vermont we have the Bayley Hazen blue cheese. It’s a very flavorful blue cheese, a personal favorite of mine. From New York state, the Hudson Flower. The Hudson Flower is a riff, if you will, on the Corsican classic Fleur de Maquis. In the middle, the centerpiece is the Mimolette, from France. The infamous Mimolette. The controversial Mimolette. You may have heard of this cheese, the FDA tried to ban it. We have it here for you today. Mimolette.”
Filmed in an old mansion in Yonkers, Moverman took advantage of a vast kitchen and a grand staircase, where vested servers descend in unison.
“We basically approached it as if we had opened a restaurant … there was never any fake food, ” Moverman said. Song and Yee prepared all of the dishes as they were described. “As you can imagine, they had a lot of visitors in the kitchen, just to check in and see how things were going.”
The food also gives the audience a release from the tension of the serious discussion at the table. The elaborate descriptions of each course are about highlighting “the contrast between civility and savagery,” Moverman said. “There’s a savage act that’s being discussed and performed. The setting is completely false. The food reflects that.”
When you make a film about a fictional, tumultuous dinner, the reviews write themselves. Critics have had mixed opinions about “The Dinner,” with many criticizing it for meandering flashbacks, melodramatic plot and inconsistent flow. “This ‘Dinner’ is spoiled before the appetizer even arrives,” wrote Washington Post reviewer Pat Padua. “Most of the time, it’s a meal that just doesn’t leave you feeling full in any way,” wrote Brian Tallerico for RogerEbert.com. “The Dinner has all the ingredients for what should be a four-star feast. But from the opening course, it’s clear that something has gone wrong in the kitchen,” wrote Entertainment Weekly’s Chris Nashawaty.
Likewise, some of the dishes at the fictional restaurant seem, well, a little overdone. Like the “melting chocolate egg with parsnip cake and grapefruit on Brazil nuts, with edible flowers and mint, topped with a salted whiskey caramel sauce.” No wonder Hall’s character sends it back to the kitchen.
“That restaurant is a joke,” says Coogan’s character, who, at one point, asks, “Can we just go out and get pizza?”
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