Oren Moverman's The Dinner, a film defined by tangents, obfuscations, and delays, is a forcefully frustrating experience. The titular meal brings together Stan (Richard Gere), a US senator on the verge of a major political breakthrough, and his dyspeptic brother, Paul (Steve Coogan), a former history professor who, not for the first time, is on the verge of a major psychological breakdown.
“We’re gonna talk tonight,” Stan announces to a warring, unpleasant party that includes his second, younger wife, Katelyn (Rebecca Hall) and Paul’s wife, Claire (Laura Linney). That turns out to easier said than done.
There are constant interruptions from Stan’s assiduous assistant (Adepero Oduye) as she reports from a crucial upper chamber vote, and from the equally diligent maitre’d, whose elaborate menu descriptions become as exasperating as they are ludicrous: “Gentlemen, we have a potage of honeynut squash with candied pea-shoots and roasted garlic and an escargot tuile.” And that’s just the starter.
Between the intrusions, Paul’s bitter rants, and a flurry of flashbacks, it takes some time to get to the heart of the matter. The couples have met to work out an appropriate response to horrific, violent act perpetrated by their teenage sons.
This encounter, which seethes with corrosive envy and white privilege, might have amounted to another shallow pop at the bourgeoise, in line with Sally Potter's The Party or Yasmina Reza's God of Carnage. But working from the 2009 novel by the Dutch author Herman Koch, Moverman explores Paul's uneasy psyche and unravels an equally complicated familial discord. In a twist worthy of M Night Shyamalan, amidst the hissed exchanges and retributions, the hero of the hour is possibly the last person we expect it to be.
Bobby Bukowski's choreographed and varied camerawork brings added dimension to a film that might easily have looked like a play. Steve Coogan has seldom been better or sourer as the irascible Paul. And the succession of disturbances leave the viewer as raging as any of ghastly diners.