Dinner With Friends (2001)

Directed by Norman Jewison

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There are two couples in Dinner With Friends, Gabe & Karen and Tom & Beth.  The four of them have been best friends for twelve years, but the men and women have each had best friend relationships going back further.  They spend the holidays together, their kids are close, and for the most part they have formed their own, larger family.

Beth (Toni Collette) comes over for dinner alone one rainy night.  This is noteworthy on its own, and she attempts to cover up for Tom’s (Greg Kinnear) disappearance before admitting that they’re getting a divorce.  It seems that Tom has fallen in love with another woman, and their marriage is beyond saving.

The point of this revelation is the impact it has on Gabe and Karen (Dennis Quaid, Andie McDowell).  Because they identified so closely with their best friends, they cannot help but see the impending divorce as a slap in the face, a reflection of their own shortcomings.

Tom soon comes over to explain his side of the breakup, pointing out the ways in which Beth had grown cold towards him over the years.  His greater point becomes the need to embrace life in the moment, to live now and not just reminisce about their younger days.

There is a flashback in the middle of the film that introduces us to how Beth and Tom met.  Gabe and Karen set them up, believing each best friend would like the other, and we get a sense not only of how invested each party is in the other relationship, but similarly the ways in which they may not completely fancy their partner’s best friend.  The main takeaway is that whether they admit it or not, Gabe and Karen have invested something of themselves in this other relationship.

Beth and Tom won’t get back together.  Their rift is beyond repair, and a short time jump shows us the ways in which they are happy, healthy and moving on.  The only problem is that Gabe and Karen don’t buy it.  They each think the formerly happy married couple is masking deeper problems, but Beth and Tom insist they’re doing just fine.

Dinner With Friends is a wonderful script for many reasons, but one of its most admirable qualities is a refusal to side with one person or the other.  Depending on how you look at each character, Beth and Tom might be in the right or they might be acting impulsively and irresponsibly.  Similarly, Gabe and Karen might be the practical ones, or they might not be able to handle looking at themselves and their marriage with any objectivity.

As we watch these long conversations unfold, we can’t help but consider our own flaws, projections and what we look for in life.  Half the audience may side with Beth and Tom, who break with the old and grab the new, and half might side with Gabe and Karen who are beholden to tradition and the ups and downs of a long-lasting relationship.  On one hand, if something’s not working, wouldn’t it be insane to stick it out?  On the other hand, maybe what’s “wrong” is just a temporary rough patch.  One perspective is to jump ship and the other is to stick it out.

And no one’s right or wrong.  Watching the movie, I alternately loathed Beth and Tom and then Gabe and Karen.  The film shows their lesser qualities, the ugly sides everyone has which can be exposed within the safe space of a near-permanent relationship.

All I can safely say is that Beth and Tom were doomed to fail.  That’s the implication in the flashback when they first meet.  We see this only after seeing them at their worst, and it’s this omniscience that colors in our perception of their casual flirtation, like watching that moment in a biopic when the celebrity we know died of an overdose first sees a line of coke.

Gabe and Karen have their own problems to work through, seen most clearly in how they react to their friends’ divorce.  Each one sides with their best friend, of course, and soon they will admit that the break up terrifies each of them.  Is there something unexamined going on between them?

In the end they will grapple with this possible truth.  The film will work like a renewal of their vows, a mandatory driving test for someone who may be too old to drive.  It’s a forced reevaluation of something previously assumed, and Dinner With Friends, more than anything, highlights insecurities, ego, pride and assumptions just about everyone lives with.

Dinner With Friends is a conversation movie, like My Dinner With Andre or other play adaptations like 2011’s The Sunset Limited.  Movies like these feel so real because they center around conversations any of us could have, but the characters have a way of speaking with an eloquence that’s hard to capture in real life.

Up Next: The Hangman (1959), The Salesman (2016), What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993)

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