The Dinner

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* * 1/2 (out of five)

Steve Coogan is a really good actor, and he can nail drama. His introspective moments in the Trip series have been getting more and more intriguing (and they are tremendously subtle); he was phenomenal in Philomena, and his ability to portray real people, as evidenced in the masterpiece 24 Hour Party People and the pretty damn good The Look of Love, sits without many peers. That said, no actor – not Dustin Hoffman, not Daniel Day Lewis – should be saddled with the burden Coogan bears in The Dinner, an adaptation of Herman Koch’s successful Dutch literary novel from 2009 from writer/director Oren Moverman (Time Out of Mind, Rampart, The Messenger).

Besides donning an American accent (which he does admirably), Coogan has to contend with an incredibly serious impairment, an almost ludicrously difficult moral quandary, and long, long speeches, all of which could have been trimmed and many of which could have been cut. It may well be that Moverman was absolutely entranced and moved by Coogan’s excellent performance, but, in leaving it all in, he’s unfortunately left his leading man out to dry.

15797938The movie would have been better too, had those cuts been made, because it’s too long, and collapses under its intense dramatic weight. It has often been said that simple, “airport”, mainstream, easy-reading potboilers make the best move adaptations – a shark terrorises a beach community! – and that complicated literary novels are devilish to adapt. This proves the case here. Watching the film, I kept thinking, “I bet this really works in the book”.

As Coogan’s brother, Richard Gere slides too easily into a high-status role (he’s running for Governor!); Laura Linney is fantastic as Coogan’s wife but the late Sir Peter Hall’s daughter Rebecca stumbles often, lumbered with the film’s weakest dialogue, as Gere’s younger partner. There is a terrific turn from Michael Chernus as the unflappable Maître D of the ludicrously expensive restaurant where these four wretched souls are thrashing out their problems, but unfortunately The Dinner, like the extravagant dishes he’s describing, is over-sauced, over-stuffed, too rich and heavy.

Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer

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*** (out of five)

Richard Gere continues his post-leading man career investigating the lives of New Yorkers and their relationships to money, power and ethics in the ludicrously over-titled Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer (let’s call it Norman for short), an intriguing and undeniably original little oddity from New York-born, Jerusalem-based director Joseph Cedar (Footnote, Beaufort).

Norman Oppenheimer (Gere) is a self-described “consultant”, President of “Oppenheimer Strategies”. While he has a high-falutin’ sense of purpose, his actual professional existence consists of desperately trying to connect people in order to curry their favour. He literally works the streets, loitering near places of power, worming his way into the rooms that may lead to the rooms adjacent to the rooms where it’s happening. The title describes him as a “fixer”; the Roman and Greek comedy theatre had a similar stock character type, the “Parasite” or “Flatterer”. He big-notes himself, is obnoxiously obsequious, and – worst of all – lies, all in the seemingly vain pursuit of feeling important.

Then, perhaps inevitably, one day one thing finally leads to another. He meets and performs his cringe-worthy sycophancy on a visiting Israeli Deputy Minister; three years later, that man is Israel’s Prime Minister, and not only hasn’t he forgotten Norman, his memories of him have softened into an overly generous affection. Norman finally becomes influential, without any skills or abilities, and his “moderate rise” must lead to a “tragic fall”.

As I’ve said, it’s an original story. The closest similar film I can recall is Being There (Hal Ashby, 1979) in which Peter Sellers played an uneducated, intellectually-challenged but beautifully spoken gardener whose horticultural tips are mistaken for wisdom and who ends up advising the President of the United States. But in that film, Sellers’ character Chance was an innocent; Gere’s Norman is absolutely complicit in his own rise, however unwarranted, and, unlike Chance, we are rooting for his fall.

At least, I was. I found Norman so deeply disagreeable that the first act of the film almost drove me from the theatre. However, once the story kicked in (and, particularly, once the excellent Israeli actor Lior Ashkenazi came onto the scene as Micha Eschel, the deputy minister) I found myself drawn in. Like Being There, Norman is constructed and presented as a bit of a fable, with simple, recurring visual motifs and warm, overtly romantic cinematography. And, with its conceit of a ludicrously under-skilled man assuming a position of unearned influence, it has acquired, between shooting and release, a depressing relevance.