Two couples meet for a tense meal as they dance around the elephant in the room: whether to cover up what their sons did, or make them take responsibility. 3 stars out of 4.
Set mostly in an absurdly posh restaurant, with candles flickering like fairies in the warm darkness, Owen Moverman’s “The Dinner” tells a story that’s ice-cold. Gradually revealed, over the multiple courses of the elaborate meal, is the reason for its existence: The two couples dining — a pair of brothers and their wives — are the parents of two teenagers who, we learn, committed a shocking, terrible crime. No one knows the boys’ identities, and so the parents must discuss: Do they, by doing nothing, conceal this story and protect their children at all costs? Or do they act, and require the boys to take responsibility for their behavior?
That “The Dinner” is not about dining is quickly apparent, though it’s a kick watching the meticulously choreographed parade of servers (one per plate) and hearing the too-precious-by-half dishes described. Based on Herman Koch’s 2009 best-seller (set in Koch’s native Amsterdam; the film is set in an American city), it’s essentially a dark character study of four adults. Moody, sardonic Paul (Steve Coogan), a former teacher recovering from a nervous breakdown, has long resented his brother Stan (Richard Gere), a popular congressman. Paul’s supportive wife Claire (Laura Linney) seems, early on, the most reasonable of the group; Stan’s second wife Katelyn (Rebecca Hall), younger than the rest of them, likewise is more complex than meets the eye.
Though the screenplay is unsatisfying (the boys remain an enigma), the film’s strength is its cast, and each of them finds moments of truth. Coogan’s Paul has a haunted melancholy behind his snarky remarks; the smooth calm of Gere’s Stan seems to be a cover for something that, like a magician’s rabbit, isn’t there. The two women have scenes late in the film that reveal them: Linney suddenly makes us see who Claire is — it’s a shocking moment, like a sudden burst of frigid air — and Hall’s character, in a speech to her husband in which she refers to herself as “the woman who is raising your children,” has a controlled fury that seems to light up the air around her. “The Dinner” ends abruptly, leaving questions behind, but its performances are feast enough.
Movie Review ★★★
‘The Dinner,’ with Richard Gere, Laura Linney, Steve Coogan, Rebecca Hall, Adepero Oduye, Charlie Plummer, Michael Chernus, Chloë Sevigny. Written and directed by Owen Moverman, based on the novel by Herman Koch. 120 minutes. Rated R for disturbing violent content, and language throughout. Sundance (21+).