2015’s action/thriller “Run All Night” starred Liam Neeson and Ed Harris as longtime friends, hitmen and fathers who meet one night over dinner to discuss why one of their sons killed the other’s son and what should be done about it. The new psychological thriller “The Dinner” (based on a 2012 novel that’s previously been adapted for the screen twice in Dutch and Italian versions) has a similar premise: four family members meet at a four-star restaurant to discuss a crime their sons have recently committed.
The diners are: Paul (played by Steve Coogan), a former high school history teacher who’s dealing with mental illness issues; Paul’s wife Claire (Laura Linney); Paul’s older brother Stan (Richard Gere), a congressman in the midst of a campaign for governor; and his second (and trophy) wife, Kate (“Christine”‘s Rebecca Hall).
Director Oren Moverman serves “The Dinner” in layers. The couples arrive for their ridiculously posh meal, only to be interrupted and diverted countless times, setting the night on a course no one, including the restaurant staff, could see coming. Between Paul’s outrageous behavior and Stan’s distractions with a pending vote on a bill he proposed, well, you can cut the tension with a knife.
In the midst of all this drama is playing-out, Moverman inserts numerous flashback sequences. We witness Paul’s breakdown, Stan’s relationship with his first wife (Chloe Sevigny), Claire’s near fatal illness and, in a series of building scenes, the critical incident involving the two teenage cousins and a homeless person.
“The Dinner” dishes on more topics than a Thanksgiving feast: mental health, politics, dysfunctional families, crime and punishment, parenting, marriage and yes, even The Civil War. And they’re all served with large portions of dialogue. The backstories where these themes are developed are interesting and certainly add framework and context to the dinner itself, but they do drag on. What keeps it all from becoming a complete bore is Coogan’s impressive showcase performance. There’s not a morsel of his usual light, British charm (or accent) here. He’s strikes a perfect balance of pathetic and sympathetic.
You can certainly see “The Dinner” working as a stage play. Two elements that Moverman (also a co-writer) includes to try to give it a more cinematic feel don’t quite work. One is a stretch involving Paul and Stan visiting the site of the Battle of Gettysburg that’s technically overwhelming. The other are the interactions with the character of the maitre’ d (played by Michael Chernus), which at times are borderline comedic – completely at odds with the flavor of the rest of the film.
It’s at about the 90-minute mark (of the 2 hours) when the juicy scene comes and these four finally get to the business at hand. And it is, without question, intense and effective. Gere shines here (Stan is largely a supporting character until this point). Linney and Hall also have their showcase moments.
When “The Dinner” ends, audiences are treated to a unique dessert in the form of a closing credits song with a title and main lyrics I can’t print. It’s unclear how it relates to all that preceded. If Moverman’s goal was to leave you with an unusual aftertaste, it worked. Overall, there’s plenty here to chew on, but it’s all a bit overdone.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, “The Dinner” gets a B-.
Running Time: 120 min.