“The Dinner” is anything but ordinary. Four wait staff deliver each course to the table. The maitre d describes each item in minute detail — “olive oil from the Peloponnese…”
And the conversation? Also out of the ordinary — cutting, profane, an overlapping cacophony of opinions, agendas, polite cover for subjects that, seriously, nobody should go to a four star restaurant to discuss.
“What’s wrong with this place?” the host wants to know.
“EVERYthing” and “Nothing” his guests snap in the same instant.
Herman Koch’s corrosive novel earns a tense, testy and sometimes darkly funny screen treatment by Oren Moverman, whose “The Messenger” and “Love & Mercy” earned awards season buzz, each in its turn. In a very short career, he’s already made a name for himself as a real “actor’s director.”
Richard Gere is Stan Lohman, over-scheduled/over-managed U.S. Congressman running for governor. Rebecca Hall is his embittered “trophy wife,” Katelyn, a one-time aide who became more when Stan’s ex (Chloe Sevigny, seen in flashbacks) dumped him.
Stan has invited his teacher/brother Paul (Steve Coogan) and Paul’s wife Claire (Laura Linney) to this fanciest, most exclusive eatery for a talk about their kids.
Paul’s voice-over narration doesn’t so much describe events as give us a peek into his mind. He’s taught history, and Gettysburg and the Civil War consume his thoughts. What he says out loud is sardonic, sarcastic, especially when it comes to this absurdly fancy restaurant.
“We don’t have THYME for rosemary,” he barks at the well-scripted maitre d (Michael Chernus). The laugh that doesn’t land sets the tone for the evening.
Everybody but EVERYbody is walking on eggshells. Even the simplest question about a child — “How’s Beau?” — can set somebody off.
Something happened involving their teenage kids, and as the movie plows through its chapter-courses — “”Appetizer, ” “Cheese Course,” “Digestif,” etc. — we piece that together through flashbacks. They went to a party together, stopped at an ATM on the way home and something happened. Not everybody knows, and Paul’s cuddly-at-arm’s-length scenes with his son (Charlie Plummer, obnoxiously good) are a clue.
Moverman skillfully enfolds events in the present with events from the past, letting “The Dinner” reveal the complicated backstories and mess around with our loyalties.
Somebody almost died, somebody has a feeble grasp of reality, somebody has a terrible temper, somebody — EVERYbody — has some sense of victimhood. And all of them share guilt, or denial, over how their kids turned out and what’s going on with them.
Linney and Gere set off fireworks in their exchanges, with Linney at her brittle best and Gere his most polished, self-righteous and self-absorbed. Hall ably gets across Katlyn’s forbearance (with limits). And Coogan crackles with the intensity of a man stuck in his sibling’s shadow, struggling to get through an awkward evening with wit, when wit isn’t what is called for.
“You pay a bigger price for NOT picking up the check.”
I love the way the film sets us up with “types” — ambitious, narcissistic politico, “trophy” wife, loyal spouse, doting dad — and thoroughly upends them time and again.
The intimacy of the argument, the unsuitability of the rich foodie’s dream of the restaurant, the flashbacks that dole out each clue with care, the moments of violence and the threat of more, make “The Dinner” the first truly outstanding movie of the year.
By moving its opening to the first weekend of May, The Orchard rewards us and reminds us that smart, tough, human cinema has a place, even in the season of “Furious” pandering and grown women and men in superhero tights.
MPAA Rating: R for disturbing violent content, and language throughout.
Cast: Richard Gere, Laura Linney, Rebecca Hall, Steve Coogan, Chloe Sevigny, Charlie Plummer
Credits: Written and directed by Oren Moverman, based on the Herman Koch novel. An Orchard release.
Running time: 2:00