I’m tempted to be sidetracked here into a discussion of the parents’ casting — which both unusual and highly effective, but I’m not sure how much else needs to be said — or the editing. Ugh, the editing … my pet peeve about Netflix and a growing number of movies these days is the excessive cutting and the dinner scene goes absolutely nuts in that regard. I counted 110 cuts in this scene and I’m pretty sure I missed some as well.
But that would be unfair to this scene, because as overboard as the cutting goes, it’s still a pivotal and generally well played moment in the film. This stands in stark contrast to the book, where the young woman remarks how surprised she is at the lack of interesting conversation. There’s also a great deal of eating at the table in the book — there’s none in the movie, not a bite. Given the animal placed at the center of the meal, that is probably a wise move for everyone involved.
Much is discussed at the table in the film, starting with the young woman’s art and the father’s dislike of both abstract art and representational art without people in it. The young woman is now a painter as well, and like everything she does, her work is purposeful and her description of it highly philosophical.
Jake generally hangs back in this conversation, except to point out that if his dad likes painting that look like photographs, why not just look at photos instead? We sense this is a long running argument between them. His father then says that he not only prefers photographs, he especially likes sports photographs. This is where the casting of David Thewlis and having him speak in his natural dialect has an interested effect on the film. An American actor making this statement would come off as a rube and philistine. But Thewlis brings an otherworldly weirdness to it.
The mother pipes up here to point out, sternly, that Jake used to paint and was very good at it. Jake seems ashamed at her pronouncement, as if he holds his mother’s praise in negative esteem. The conversation then turns back to Jake’s father and the young woman discussing inferiority and how a painting of a landscape can be sad without a sad person in it. I get the feeling from this exchange that Jake is overjoyed to have the more articulate young woman express this point for him because he’s failed in the past to get his true feelings across.
We then see that the young woman has received numerous calls from Louisa — the name Jake’s mother called her when they first met. Ignoring these alerts, the young woman calls up iphone pictures of her paintings and I’ll have more to say about them when discussing the basement scene. After a very awkward transition where the mother seems to lose her train of thought, we find out that the girlfriend has another potential vocation — she’s studying quantum physics. The mother then declares that she couldn’t understand anything Jake said after seventh grade (and she’s sounding more like my mom in every line) so she’s happy Jake has found someone so smart.
Then we begin the very long, seemingly very rehearsed, story of how the two met. One side note: Jake’s dad calls Billy Crystal a “Nancy” which harkens back to a few scenes in the movie where Jake makes strong statements against homophobia. This is a strong sign where that hatred of the hatred came from. Jake and his mom then get into a pointless little argument about the stock Trivial Pursuit game being called the genus edition, not genius editing. Again, while I never had this specific argument with my own mom, it sounds like one of 10,000 similar passive-aggressive conflicts.
The mother’s affect throughout this scene is something to behold. She laughs in multiple inappropriate places and starts to cry in another. You get the sense that the mom has serious behavioral issues and I need to stop comparing her to my mom and sister, but it’s really hard to avoid it. The mother is incredibly invested in this meet-cute trivia contest story. She needs to know that the woman thought Jake was cute, more than once, and seems to need personal reassurance from her that she liked Jake throughout and didn’t find him strange. She clearly has great vicarious needs for others to judge her son warmly.
I did find it very interesting that the young woman, for the one and only time in the film, starts stammering when they get into the completely pointless discussion about Brezhnev. It feels like her consciousness is beginning to slip in that moment, a glitch in the matrix. But she redeems herself by doing a surprisingly fine job of handling Jake’s dad when he tossed in a non sequitor about the conversation moving away from Brezhnev. Once again, Jake seems warmly impressed that she can handle his dad in a way he never could.
His mom’s investment in the conversation really seems to go overboard when she asks “you didn’t like him anymore?” It’s a completely nuts thing to say in context considering that she’s sitting at the table right now, so obviously she didn’t reject him. This reveals the mother as someone likely enslaved to romantic films, which plays into the discussion the couple had earlier about movies infecting human consciousness.
But the young woman has an expertly delivered conclusion to this piece of false drama and lands the story in a way that makes their so. sound like a brave, romantic hero, so unlike he’s presented himself up to that point in life. And I should also point out that as she winds down this story, the film slows down the cuts a bit and even uses a couple pans from the girlfriend back to Jake. The scene ends with the young woman seemingly exhausted from the performance. She downs a glass of wine in one long gulp.
Her performance in this scene is a wonderful act of kindness towards Jake, handling his mother and father with incredible empathy and flexibility. It’s the kind of scene that might convince a young man that this is a woman he could marry — and marriage had come up before the parents came down, in an awkward context.
As strange as this scene and the non-meal is, everything that happens in it is far more normal than what we’ll witness in the scenes ahead. The young woman did not capture any more agency in this scene, but she did raise the stakes for how she might handle being part of this family over the long run. In the scenes to come we will see that lifetime play out in a condensed and intense form.