The structure of Oren Moverman’s The Dinner is, appropriately enough, prandial. It begins, roughly, with an aperitif, and concludes shortly after a digestif at an uber-luxurious prix fixe restaurant, the sort of dimly lit culinary castle where a wine is selected for each course, where the waiters explain the provenance of the garnish, and where the bill costs as much as an international flight.
Decadent and discreet, it’s just the sort of place for estranged bourgeois siblings to resurrect old demons, discuss a new crisis, and descend into barbarism. That’s the concept behind the film and its source material, a Dutch best-seller by Herman Koch that, like Yasmina Reza’s play God of Carnage, speaks the universal language of cosseted savagery in the upper class.
The action is sort-of narrated — spottily and jarringly — by Paul Lohman (Steve Coogan), a former history teacher and Civil War obsessive who suffers from an unspecified mental illness that has left him bitter and righteous toward the world and especially his influential brother Stan (Richard Gere), a Congressman running for governor. They’re gathering among the molecular appetizers, house-grown microgreens and dustings of Himalayan sea salt to discuss a disturbing act of violence, caught on viral video, involving the children of both men (shades, again, of God of Carnage). Joining them are their wives, Paul’s spouse Claire (Laura Linney), and Stan’s second wife Katelyn (Rebecca Hall, steely and helmet-haired).
When Moverman keeps his focus on the present, The Dinner retains a compelling, tensile heft, where uncomfortable situations yield, finally, to resonant dialogues about privilege and responsibility, guilt and self-interest. The conventional image of the movie politician — a corrupt snake in a pressed suite, the sort Gere could play blindfolded — is cleverly upturned, with Stan assuming the film’s lone role of moral compass.
But the import of The Dinner comes far too late in the game, after a good 90 minutes of turgid, clumsily interwoven flashbacks. Moverman, the capable and sensitive filmmaker behind The Messenger and the 2014 Gere vehicle Time Out of Mind, directs with a heavy, radically misjudged hand. The first warning sign arrives early, in the restless, trippy opening credits, a montage of vague food-porn close-ups dissolving abstractly into each other, conjuring the sort of art-film ostentation that repels so many viewers. He repeats this meandering style later at a Gettysburg memorial, a sequence that seems lifted from another film entirely — a Ken Burns parody, perhaps.
The Dinner is no better during its more momentous flashbacks, in which the Lohman sons’ grievous actions, the rationale for Paul and Stan’s acrimonious split, and the origins of Paul’s mental illness ploddingly converge in a patchwork quilt where the seams show. A slow-motion montage of a basketball, literally and symbolically bouncing toward and through the glass window of a shopkeeper, is a particularly embarrassing visualization of Paul’s inchoate madness.
Even Moverman’s selection of nondiegetic music feels manic and unfocused, from an early, abrasive rap selection to an intrusion of dialogue-swallowing jazz to a closing-credits modern rock track from Savages — a band that seems to have been cheekily selected for its name rather than the appropriateness of the sound.
The only actor who seems entirely comfortable in his character’s skin is Gere, following up his brilliantly portrayed nebbish fixer in Norman with an effectively tortured politico. Hall seems constrained by her stereotype, the glamorous, power-hungry trophy wife, and Linney’s performance is one of her most calculated and familiar: You can see her gears turning, which I suppose makes sense in a film that mechanical. Worst of all is Coogan, who not only can’t find the empathy in his corroded, anhedonic narrator but also has trouble suppressing his inherent English lilt.
On the bright side, at least the cheese course looked scrumptious.
THE DINNER. Director: Oren Moverman; Cast: Steve Coogan, Richard Gere, Laura Linney, Rebecca Hall, Chloe Sevigny, Charlie Plummer; Distributor: Orchard; Rating: R; Opens: Friday at Regal Royal Palm Beach, Movies of Lake Worth, Movies of Delray, Regal Shadowood and Living Room Theaters in Boca Raton, Silverspot Cinema in Coconut Creek, AMC Broward in Pompano Beach, the Classic Gateway Theater in Fort Lauderdale, AMC Aventura, Regal South Beach and AMC Sunset Place