An extremely faithful, well-cast film adaptation of Donald Margulies’ highly affecting play, HBO’s “Dinner With Friends” marks the cabler’s second presentation this year of a Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, after multiple Emmy nominee “Wit.” While the staginess of the monologue-driven “Wit” required some stylistic flair on the part of director Mike Nichols, the realistic “Dinner With Friends” provides a more subtle challenge for veteran helmer Norman Jewison, whose ouevre includes several stage-to-film translations, from the musicals “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Jesus Christ Superstar” to the plays “Agnes of God,” “Other People’s Money” and the under-valued “A Soldier’s Story.” Trusting in Margulies’ delicate, character-driven story exploring marriage, friendship and change, Jewison gracefully captures the upper-middle-class milieu and allows the work to develop with a proper, unobstructed focus on the layered relationships.
Keeping the integrity of Margulies’ seven scenes intact, Jewison adds establishing shots, spare intercutting between simultaneous scenes and some additional movement to keep scenes from feeling visually stagnant. The opening sequence shifts from the offices of Gourmet magazine to the home of food writers Gabe (Dennis Quaid) and Karen (Andie MacDowell), who, having just returned from a trip to Italy, prepare dinner for their best friends. In this case, only Beth (Toni Collette) shows up, along with her children, and while at first she makes excuses for husband Tom (Greg Kinnear), she soon breaks down in tears and confesses Tom has left her for another woman.
Later that night, Gabe and Karen mull over the shock of this revelation, while Tom comes home from an aborted trip to find that Beth has established what he considers an unfair advantage by spilling the beans. Tom then goes to Gabe and Karen’s to give his side of the story. While he’s treated to some tasty leftovers — Jewison does a good job incorporating the background food that’s often the external excuse for the get-togethers — Tom encounters the complete bafflement of his unsympathetic friends.
The film continues to follow the play faithfully as it then flashes back 12 years to the time in Martha’s Vineyard when the recently married Gabe and Karen introduced the eccentric, aspiring artist Beth to the young lawyer Tom. This scene sets up once and for all that this work is not about narrative drive so much as the fleshing out of the characters and relationships. Cinematographer Roger Deakins gives this extended sequence the sepia tones of an old photograph, and drenches much of it in bright light to enhance both its beach setting and the sense of innocent joy that comes with newfound love.
It’s in the last scenes that “Dinner With Friends” really begins to take shape thematically, taking a turn that deepens its focus. The men and the women separately have lunch a few months after the opening scenes, and everything between them has changed. As Tom and Beth go on with their lives, the lasting effect of their breakup can be seen on Gabe and Karen, who are forced to re-evaluate the last decade of their lives and wonder whether their marriage is as fragile as their now-decaying friendship with folks they had long considered family.
What makes “Dinner With Friends” such an impressive work is Margulies’ ability to bring feelings of loss and the fear of change to the forefront in a truly honest fashion, without forcing the issues too bluntly. The performances are very strong here, particularly MacDowell’s, who is able to convey Beth’s judgmental attitude while keeping the character sympathetic — it is arguably her best work yet. The others also are well-suited to their roles, Quaid as a guy more comfortable talking about work than feelings, Kinnear as a man entering middle age but still seeking some boyhood abandon and Collette as the character who has changed the most as she advanced to middle age, from a bit of a bohemian a decade earlier to an elegant, needy but still distant woman.
Jewison, Deakins and editor Ronald Sanders keep everything fluid, providing multiple camera angles on scenes that are physically still. Some of the added settings feel tagged-on, like an awkward staircase scene early on and a distracting bathroom sequence later, but overall they manage to keep the piece from feeling stage-bound while remaining true to the worthy original.