In the opening voice-over of The Dinner, Paul (Steve Coogan, sporting an American accent that’s quite jarring at first) rambles about his love for everything ancient Roman. From the frescoes to the architecture, he laments modern America’s weakness.
It’s only fitting, then, that writer-director Oren Moverman (Rampart, Time Out of Mind) spends the remainder of this ‘stagey,’ verbose film equating his quad of players to the powerful and morally corrupt kings and queens of ancient times desperately trying to salvage a crumbling empire in the wake of a broken and bleak family tragedy.
It’s certainly Coogan who gets the most juicy parts of the film’s first half. He’s resistant to the invitation of his brother, high profile New York politician Stan (Richard Gere), to the titular dinner. His soft-spoken and reasonable wife Claire (Laura Linney) talks him into it.
Once at the dinner, Paul can barely stand the company of his family, prompting him to continually step away, creating a digressive nature to the film that not only avoids its reason for said dinner but gives it time to weave in a flashback that adds mystery to the impromptu get-together. And if its not Paul’s seething attitude towards his brother and young wife Katelyn (Rebecca Hall in yet another stellar performance), then it’s the aides who promptly interrupt the occasion with urgent phone calls from Washington, where a bill proposed by Stan is suffering a rough ride to approval.
And any movie called The Dinner wouldn’t be completely remiss if it didn’t include scrumptious offerings, presented in florid presentations by a staff of waiters, maitre d, and even the restaurant owner who endlessly grovel and hang at the edges of their table catering to every whim, sigh or difficult champagne bottle cork. The Gothic and ominous fire-lit interior of the restaurant only adds to the sinister aspect of the eventual revelations of the family.
As the night progresses, perspectives shift and each actor is given his or her moment to shine and direct the film with their energy. Working with Moverman twice now, Gere glides along ,and Coogan, so well known for his low-key British comedies, does an interesting about-turn with his insufferable, cautious embodiment of Paul. The most ferocious performance is by Hall, however. If Coogan reigns in the first half, then Hall’s quick strangulation of the film’s mood and tempo totally owns the second half.
Strong acting aside, much of The Dinner is frustrating, which makes it no surprise when, after dallying around for so long, its third act explanations and eventual denouement pack a muted punch. It touches on a variety of subjects, some more successful than others. There’s an odd diversion into the images and sounds of the Civil War while — during one of its many flashbacks into the strange history between brothers Gere and Coogan — the two wander around Gettysburg.
I suppose it becomes emblematic of the warring attitudes between the brothers, however it’s a flourish that feels more pointed than necessary. Add to that riffs on mental illness, anger at the sickness of a loved one to cancer and overt jabs at racism, and The Dinner slowly becomes a jumbled mess whose ideas of the sickly moral fabric of one family get lost in over explanation.
Based on an acclaimed novel by Herman Koch and already brought to the screen once in Italy in 2014, The Dinner would probably make for one great play. The intertitles of “aperitif,’ “appetizer’ and “cheese course” already delineate the affair in neatly packaged acts and compliment the deliberate focus as to why these four pretty miserable people have shoehorned themselves into a lavish room together.
Miserable is the operative word, and the film’s abrupt conclusion, while wanting to come off as shocking or deep, really only provides a welcome escape from the vampish mores and black morals of four people who rarely eat out together. Crumbling kings and queens, indeed.
The film opens in the Dallas/Fort Worth area on Friday, May 5 at the Angelika Theater and AMC Theaters in Grapevine, Mesquite, Frisco and Irving.