There are about three or four rich and provocative films happening on top of each other in Oren Moverman’s “The Dinner,” and any one of them — hell, any two! — would make a fine stand-alone work in its own right. But in its current state, this discordant mix of tones, themes and performance styles just doesn’t quite add up.
At once a darkly comic social satire, a pitch-black moral thriller and an earnest plea to recognize mental illness, “The Dinner” is a seven-layer dip overflowing with compelling individual ingredients that, when mixed together, make the finished dish awfully difficult to digest.
The film starts, anyway, as a fleet-footed dark comedy. Middle-aged misanthropes Paul (Steve Coogan, pulling off an American accent that sounds uncannily like Willem Dafoe) and Claire (Laura Linney, thankfully getting to sink her teeth into a role again) are off to the chicest restaurant in town for a meal they dread alongside a couple they abhor. That other couple? Why, it’s Paul’s brother Stan (Richard Gere) — that’s Congressman and soon to be Governor Stan Lohman to you — and his much younger wife, Katelyn (Rebecca Hall). The reason for this unwanted social call? As of yet, unclear.
Throughout its first third, “The Dinner” barrels forward on belly laughs provided by Coogan’s acid glare, Gere’s slightly tinned charm and writer-director Moverman’s pitch perfect skewering of pretentious modern gastronomy. (Linney and Hall get their times to shine later.) Moverman and cinematographer Bobby Bukowski (“99 Homes”) keep both the action and the actors rather dimly lit in the foreground, while bathing background surfaces in a garish neon glow, creating a somewhat unsettling, vaguely sinister look and feel less befitting a class-based comedy than it does a searing psychological thriller.
Indeed, that is exactly what the film becomes. Based on a best-selling book from Dutch author Herman Koch, “The Dinner” keeps a novelistic structure, offering a generous serving of flashbacks with every course of the meal. These flashbacks primarily flesh out Paul’s long history with mental illness and depression, and the reveal of Paul’s violent illness moves the film into darker waters. These revelations also completely reframe our understanding of the characters and their relationships to each other as this long and opulent dinner goes on, making us question premises we had initially taken at face value.
To quote from another famous dinner text – dayenu! If the film were just the exquisitely funny set-up followed by an upending, unreliable narrator payoff, that would be enough. But there’s a whole other element at play, one that reveals itself as Stan’s reason for calling this dinner comes into clearer focus. You see, there’s a third stream interspersed throughout the action of the film in both the restaurant and family flashbacks: the events of a single night, when the children of both couples drunkenly commit a heinous, violent act that gets captured on camera and uploaded onto the internet.
As it becomes clear that this dinner was called to deal with the fallout of this sick crime (which Moverman depicts unsparingly — there’s no ambiguity that these are some messed-up kids), the film shifts into third gear, becoming a kind of moral meditation on crime, punishment and consequence. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, especially since it gives able (and often criminally underused) actors Hall and Linney terrific scenes and really textured notes to play. It’s just that the film, with its fairly slight story, is simply not sturdy enough to handle all these weighty shifts.
Without exaggeration, “The Dinner” touches on themes of societal shame regarding mental illness, the lasting legacy of the Civil War, the nature of politics, race and racism in families, the American school system, upper-middle-class hypocrisy, the deleterious effects of the internet and so, so much more. To hear it described like that, “The Dinner” sounds like it should be the film of the moment, but for that to be the case, it would have to take some of those disturbingly relevant topics and actually say something about them. Instead it seems content to raise the idea, like another trending topic on Twitter, and then move on to the next one — the next Big Idea, the next tonal shift.
Though never boring — Moverman’s confidence and swagger behind the camera seems to grow with each successive film — there’s simply too much going on for any one (or two, or three!) ideas to develop. The effect is a film that seems overwrought and undercooked. You can never fault ambition but, dammit, if “The Dinner” doesn’t bite off quite a bit more than it can chew.