It's fitting that the first images you see in the riveting family drama "The Dinner" are of food. Fancy food. The kind of artful, designed fare that few mortals could possibly recreate and that bound books, television shows, documentaries and movies fetishize and worship. But this is not food porn. There's something sinister about these images - the ominous music and the camera movements make these painstakingly designed and exorbitantly expensive dishes seem like all that is evil in the modern world. It's a sense that sticks with you throughout writer-director Oren Moverman's grandly ambitious, if not wholly successful film.
Based on the Dutch novel by Herman Koch, the set-up is small but instantly intriguing. Two married couples are gathering for dinner to discuss something sensitive, something to do with their teenage sons - creating the atmosphere of genuinely suspenseful whodunit. One is a charismatic congressman who's running for governor, Stan Lohman (Richard Gere) and his primly coiffed (and quite young) wife Katelyn (Rebecca Hall). The other is Stan's perpetually aggrieved brother, Paul (Steve Coogan) and his tolerant wife, Claire (Laura Linney).
Paul, a former public school teacher who is obsessed with the Civil War, doesn't want to go to the dinner. He hates the dripping decadence and pretention of the restaurant and does not seem interested in pretending to be anything but disdainful of the operation, even as the eager hosts and perfectly pleasant maître d' (Michael Chernus) proudly explain what's on each dish and why it's so special. Paul's awkward stubbornness is even a little endearing at first - he seems to be on to something worthy about wealth and opulence as he manages to embarrass the staff, his brother and his wife. But as the meal, and film progress, his true makeup emerges. Paul might have big Marxist ideas at the ready, but he comes from the same immensely advantaged stock as his brother Stan.
As each course comes out, a new layer is exposed in the complex tapestry of the lives of the two Lohman families - Stan's first wife Barbara (Chloe Sevigny), various health issues, of the mental and physical variety, and the deep-seated damage and corrosiveness of long-unchecked privilege.
The performances are first rate - nuanced and lived in from the first moments of performative civility to the shattering barbs thrown by the end - even if the women are given the comparatively short stick here. But it is, essentially, about the brothers and both Coogan and Gere are up to the challenge.
It takes a little too long for the movie to arrive at the Big Thing. "The Dinner" does not weave time and revelations as elegantly as, say, "Manchester by the Sea" did just last year. There are so many fits and starts and diversions and delays that even the most patient viewer will have a hard time buying that it would take these four this long to get to the point. By the time they do, the natural interest has slowed and patience is waning. But with the revelation, however tardy, a new ethical and moral conundrum arises which effectively propels the film to its fiery end. It might even leave you wanting more.
To be perfectly blunt, though, "The Dinner" is not an easy watch, and it may be hard to stomach for some. If I may offer a suggestion: "The Dinner" is best consumed with a very stiff drink by your side, possibly alone.
"The Dinner," a The Orchard release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for "disturbing violent content, and language throughout." Running time: 120 minutes. Three stars out of four.
MPAA Definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
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