Few things are quite as frustrating as watching great actors knock themselves out on material that’s not nearly as good as they are.
“The Dinner,” based on Herman Koch’s best-selling novel (it’s already been dramatized in Dutch and Italian versions), certainly has its moments, most of them provided in killer perfs by Richard Gere, Steve Coogan, Rebecca Hall and especially Laura Linney.
But the film, set mostly in a restaurant so pretentious that the unctuous maitre’d announces each dish’s ingredients practically down to the molecular level, is itself off-puttingly pretentious. Plus, the characters’ attitudes and behavior are so sleazy that you really can’t find anyone to root for.
In the first scene, Paul Loman (Coogan), a former history teacher now working (abortively) on a book about the Civil War, and his wife Claire (Linney) are preparing for a family dinner at a posh eatery.
Paul isn’t keen on the gathering. It’s the idea of his brother Stan (Gere), a U.S. Congressman now running for governor of their home state, and it’s obvious that the siblings don’t get along. Paul takes a fierce anti-establishment attitude, oozing sneering comments about his politician brother. The awesomely patient Claire somehow gets him into his clothes and out the door.
Once at the restaurant, civility rapidly evaporates. Paul is in a bitchy mood and it’s up to the wives, Claire and Katelyn (Hall), to smooth over the rough patches.
Why has Stan called this conclave? Well, there’s a family crisis, though writer/director Owen Moverman (“Rampart,” “The Messenger”) takes his sweet time in giving us the details, relying heavily on convoluted flashbacks that almost send the narrative spinning out of control.
But here’s the crux: Paul’s son Michael (Charlie Plummer) and Stan’s son Rick (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick), a couple of privileged adolescent shits, have “accidentally” killed a homeless person they encountered late one night in a bank’s ATM atrium.
Apparently they got away clean (what . . . no surveillance cameras?). But now a third member of their party, Rick’s brother Beau (Miles J. Harvey), is threatening to go to the cops if the other two don’t cough up some big bucks.
Up to this point we’ve tended to see the silver-haired Stan through his brother’s eyes: A glad-handing politico with an ever-present Girl Friday (Adepero Oduye) who interrupts every conversation with updates on a mental health bill Stan is pushing through the House.
Now things get twisted around. A series of flashbacks reveal that Paul may be an unreliable narrator . . . he’s got severe mental problems and has an aversion to the medication that allows him to function more or less normally.
And it’s Stan, the ambitious politician, who proposes that the families turn their errant sons over to the cops. Stan will suspend his gubernatorial campaign and, if necessary, retire from public service. He’s willing to do the decent thing.
Except that the others at the table want to keep covering things up. Their sons are basically good kids, they argue. Their lives will be ruined. At the very least they’re looking at years in juvie.
It’s in these latter scenes that Linney comes to the fore. It’s breathtaking to watch her maternal, caring Claire morph into a modern-day Lady Macbeth, willing to do anything (including, perhaps, murder) to protect her child.
“The Dinner” ends on an ambivalent note . . . but, hey, the entire film reeks of ambivalence.
Indeed, the only character to survive unscathed is the pudgy maitre’d (Michael Chernus), an evangelistic foodie whose devotion to adventurous cuisine is actually kind of touching.