Published Nov 11, 2020On paper, the Nicol Paone-written and -directed comedy Dinner with Friends looks lighthearted and fun — an easy and entertaining film for the holiday season. Its execution, however, falls flat, taking viewers on a superficial romp through a Hollywood Thanksgiving dinner party that fails in its storytelling.
Malin Akerman plays Hollywood star Molly, who's going through a divorce and has to take care of her five-month-old baby alone. Her best friend is Abby, played by Kat Dennings. The third friend in this trio is Lauren, played by Aisha Tyler. Jane Seymour plays Molly's mother Helen, and Chelsea Peretti shows up halfway through as an out-of-touch, spacey L.A. spiritualist.
The plot follows Molly as she hosts a Thanksgiving dinner party while simultaneously choosing to not be sad over her impending divorce, and Abby as she deals with a breakup that happened in January. Many guests show up, things get shroom-y, and there's a lot of naked Jack Donnelly — who plays Jeff, Molly's rebound. There are many minor subplots within the film, but the main focus is on Molly and the brave face she puts on for the world, and Abby's inability to cope with the end of her relationship.
The biggest issue with this movie is how inauthentic the relationships between characters seem. The friendship between Molly, Abby and Lauren is never adequately explored or fleshed out. Molly and Abby are best friends, but the bond that's meant to cement the two women together isn't palpable. There's some discussion about how bras are uncomfortable (because women talk about this, I guess) and about anal — chit-chat with no depth. What is it about each woman that makes her a good friend to the other? What has their relationship looked like throughout the years? We never learn the answers to these questions or gain any true insight into their relationship. Helen and Molly's relationship fares somewhat better: Helen neglected Molly as a child and because of this Molly fears being an absent mother to her own child; Molly's anxiety is convincing and well-explored.
Something to appreciate within the movie is how Helen acknowledges and criticizes the misogyny of the past and how societal expectations have taken a tremendous toll on her, going so far as to affect her ability to be a mother.
Something else that should have been explored more is Abby's abusive ex. Periodically, Lauren and Molly bring up the fact that Abby's ex was abusive: she locked Abby in a closet when she didn't like Abby's outfit, didn't like being seen with Abby after Abby had put on weight, and shaved Abby's head in the middle of the night. No one acknowledges this mistreatment; rather, it's played for laughs to show Abby that she shouldn't be so sad about the break-up. This could have been a worthwhile topic to explore — abuse in same-sex relationships — but the movie pretends it isn't there.
Ultimately, this film's failure is its inability to tell its own story well. In focusing too much screen time on minutiae — guests taking pictures at the photo booth, shots of liquor, a weird scene where Jeff takes selfies with and then accidentally breastfeeds the baby — it misses out on exploring meaningful topics. Even Paretti's character seems superfluous: she doesn't further the plot and she seems to be there for the sake of being there. Don't get me wrong, she's funny, but why she has so much screen time is a mystery.
Dinner with Friends could have been interesting, but it doesn't do its main characters justice by fleshing out their stories or connections in a genuine way. As a result, the relationships seem like an afterthought, the feminist ideas seem hollow, and you wonder whether any of the people on screen are really friends. (Saban Films)