An unappetizing meal of class anxiety, politics, mental illness and delinquent children, writer-director Oren Moverman’s “The Dinner” has plenty of dramatic potential. Unfortunately, the dish is all but inedible.
Adapted from Dutch author Herman Koch’s 2009 bestseller, the movie is organized by course, with such chapters as “Aperitif” indicated in on-screen titles, in formal script. This mannered structure, like pairing a fine wine with subpar food, only draws attention to the steaming, unsavory mess of a screenplay. (Moverman previously co-wrote both “I’m Not There” and “Love & Mercy,” and he directed “The Messenger and “Time Out of Mind.”)
The plot begins with mere social anxiety. Paul Lohman (Steve Coogan, barely pulling off an American accent) is, despite pleas from his wife (Laura Linney), reluctant to go to an elaborate dinner with his brother Stan (Richard Gere), a congressman running for governor, and his wife (Rebecca Hall).
Paul doesn’t hide his contempt for his dining companions: “These leeches! These maggots!” he complains. His attitude seems to align with the filmmaker’s own misanthropy — for characters that are poorly developed and often act without any clear motivation, other than inherent boorishness.
Although the opening credits seem to promise a satire of haute cuisine, what unfolds, or unravels, thereafter is a story of mental illness and two strained families who are trying to decide what to do about their respective teenage sons, who have committed a terrible crime that could derail their future, not to mention Stan’s gubernatorial campaign.
It’s not a bad premise — for melodrama. And the film’s moral dilemma seems like a variation on themes that were addressed to better effect in the recent Romanian drama “Graduation.” To wit: In an increasingly corrupt adult world, how can we teach our children to be good people?
Yet “The Dinner” diminishes this profound conundrum with a sensationalism that suggests such outrage-ready headlines as “They paid hundreds to eat ‘pumpernickel soil’ while their children committed MURDER!” That’s not drama. That’s six-course clickbait, fodder for the next think-piece about elitism and our broken society.
But the film’s worst misstep may be the flashback to Paul’s former life as a teacher. It’s an extended Gettysburg montage — complete with audio reenactment — inspired by Paul’s trip to the Civil War battleground with his estranged brother. (It’s worth noting that the sibling dynamic in “The Boss Baby” was more convincing.)
In case you miss the point, Paul quotes Abraham Lincoln: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”
Moverman has admitted, in an interview included in the film’s press material, that the food depicted in “The Dinner” is ridiculous, in the way it strains for hipness. At the same time, he seems unaware that his own film also tries too hard. This “Dinner” is spoiled before the appetizer even arrives.
R. At area theaters. Contains strong language, violence and projectile self-righteousness. 120 minutes