Two couples worry about themselves, their kids and, at times, their sanity while being plied with ridiculously styled, ridiculously tiny amounts of food in The Dinner, writer-director Oren Moverman’s U.S.-set adaptation of the bestseller by Dutch author Herman Koch. This is already the third adaptation of the popular novel for the big screen, after Dutch- and Italian-language versions directed by Menno Meyjes and Ivano de Matteo, respectively. And like those films, The Dinner maintains the central conceit of the extended family meal in a chichi eatery, but the writer-director liberally adapts the material to suit his own interests and needs.
A high-carat cast — which includes Richard Gere, Laura Linney and Steve Coogan — tears into the juicy material with relish for the most part, but by trying to keep the prolonged sit-down affair from becoming excessively stagey, Moverman adds too many distracting flashbacks to maintain the original’s hard-hitting and well-aimed gut punch. Still, with a marquee-friendly cast and the novel’s popularity, this Berlinale premiere will probably see some arthouse action both in Europe and stateside before ending up as broadcast fodder for people watching TV with plates of microwaved food on their knees.
Paul (Coogan), the unreliable narrator of the book, has here been re-imagined as a U.S. history teacher off his meds. When the film opens, he’s protesting to his wife, Claire (Linney), that he doesn’t want to go to the dinner planned by his oh-so-important older brother, Stan (Gere), a congressman running for governor, and Stan’s second wife, Kate (Rebecca Hall), in the kind of fashionable restaurant where the prices are inversely proportional to the amount of food on the plates. Paul is also worried about his 16-year-old son, Mike (Charlie Plummer), who seems to be growing up too fast and who likes to hang out with Stan’s teenage son, Rick (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick), and Rick’s adopted brother, Beau (Miles J. Harvey).
As in the novel, the film is divided into chapters named after the courses — aperitif, appetizer, etc. — while the main part of the narrative unfolds in and around the restaurant, which production designer Kelly McGehee has imagined as a sumptuous and isolated villa with many rooms. Stan is constantly being called aside by his loyal aide (Adepero Oduye, doing a lot in a small role) to deal with the frantic search for support for a bill on mental health or issues concerning his election campaign, which makes the others around the table nervous. It is clear they have something they all need to discuss about their offspring, which involves (spoiler alert!) their sons and a certain horrible turn of events (or is it a crime?).
Koch’s original novel slowly peeled back the onion-like layers of the seemingly fair and well-behaved bourgeois caste, exploring thorny issues such as class, race, justice and the extent to which obligations parents feel toward their families might supersede these concerns. In the film’s first act, Moverman neatly establishes the original’s caustic and blackly humorous tone as Paul takes aim at everything from his family obligations to the restaurant to his own brother; “You can stop smiling now; it’s just us,” he bitingly says when the Congressman finally sits down after an endless round of handshaking and small talk at other tables at the restaurant.
But the revelation of the two couples’ topic of discussion takes a while and Moverman can only get that much mileage out of Paul’s mordant bons mots and a clever send-up of the laughably serious presentation of all the food and drink. To fill in some of the backstory, flashbacks start to appear early and often and it is here that The Dinner loses some of its focus as the strands multiply and the overall timeline becomes a little blurred. Not only is there Paul’s unreliable voiceover, but there are flashbacks to some days or weeks earlier, when Rick, Beau and Mike were forced to leave a party and then started annoying a homeless woman (Onika Day); to around a decade earlier, when Stan was still married to Rick’s mom (Chloë Sevigny) and young Mike (Jesse Dean Petersen) broke a store window; to the brothers’ visit to Gettysburg (it is unclear when exactly); and to a relatively recent time when Paul was still a teacher and had a meltdown in class.
Just like his previous Richard Gere vehicle Time Out of Mind, Moverman wrote the screenplay solo (he co-wrote his earlier films The Messenger and Rampart). His attempts to Americanize the Netherlands-set novel are largely successful, with especially the political material feeling distinctly local and the Civil War becoming an unexpected (and somewhat awkward) leitmotif. The scenes set in the past and away from the restaurant prevent the proceedings from becoming filmed theater but they also shift the tone from a sparkling and wry comedy of manners to something more akin to straightforward — and less compelling — family drama. After the midpoint, the backstories and subplots start to crowd out the material that really matters, with the idea that this story is really a 21st-century morality play only crystallizing by the time the digestif is served.
Coogan hasn’t had a role this juicy in a long time and his facial expressions here are frequently more telling than anything he says, though Paul is not one to censor himself and Coogan’s delivery is always pitch-perfect. Linney’s Claire turns out to be a lioness of a mother — one can almost see her as a better-intentioned but just as fierce cousin of Linney’s monstrous mother in Nocturnal Animals — and she has a particularly good scene toward the end in which she phones her son and pretends everything is OK for the benefit of exactly one person: herself. Hall navigates Kate’s histrionics like a pro but the film, like her husband, doesn’t value or consider her quite enough, while Gere is solid as (spoiler alert!) a creature that seems practically extinct these days: a politician with a conscience and a principled sense of duties and morals.
Moverman and cinematographer Bobby Bukowski take an almost expressionist approach to the visuals, with a lot of the events taking place in a combination of artificial light and dark shadows that often suggest more about the mental state of the characters than the documentary reality in which they live. The soundtrack has been similarly populated with a heterogeneous bunch of songs and heightened sounds that contribute to the frequently unsettling atmosphere, like when the irregular noises of the Congressman’s smartphone and an almost Muzak-like Satie piece intermingle and become the eerie backdrop to a series of halting revelations and reversals.
Production companies: Code Red, Chubbco, Blackbird, Protagonist Pictures
Cast: Richard Gere, Laura Linney, Steve Coogan, Rebecca Hall, Adepero Oduye, Michael Chernus, Charlie Plummer, Chloë Sevigny, Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick, Miles J. Harvey, Onika Day
Writer-Director: Oren Moverman, screenplay based on the novel by Herman Koch
Producers: Cotty Chubb, Lawrence Inglee, Eddie Vaisman, Julia Lebedev
Executive producers: Leonid Lebedev, Angel Lopez, Olga Segura, Eva Marie Daniels
Director of photography: Bobby Bukowski
Production designer: Kelly McGehee
Costume designer: Catherine George
Editor: Alex Hall
Casting: Laura Rosenthal
Sales: Protagonist Pictures
No rating, 120 minutes