Envy, bitterness, recrimination — it’s what’s for dinner. Rather, it’s on the menu in “The Dinner,” an acrid family affair that has been aggressively over-directed by the talented Oren Moverman (“The Messenger”) and brought to intermittent life by a very good cast.
You can understand why Richard Gere, Laura Linney, Steve Coogan, and Rebecca Hall might be drawn to this story, a four-hander about two battling brothers and their wives who go out to dinner on what eventually becomes the worst night of their lives. A few minutes into the movie, we’re pretty sure we know who these characters are, but by the final scene each has revealed him or herself to be quite different from that first impression. It’s the sort of thing that’s catnip to an actor — and sometimes to an audience.
Coogan is Paul and Gere is his brother Stan, and the blood between them has been boiling for decades. Stan’s a silver fox of a congressman currently running for governor in what looks like John V. Lindsay’s old persona, sexy and slick. Paul is a high school teacher who has never stopped railing about the fatuous big brother that mom always liked best; his tirades against the modern world are a splenetic high point of the film’s early scenes.
Claire (Linney) is Paul’s wife, long-suffering and practical. Katelyn (Hall) is Stan’s second wife, poised and ready to be the state’s first lady. Stan gathers all four at a Manhattan restaurant where the prices are astronomical and the foodie pretensions even more so. He has something he needs to get off his chest.
“The Dinner” eventually lets us know what that is, but Moverman, adapting Dutch writer Herman Koch’s 2013 novel, keeps delaying the revelations, filling in the story of the brothers’ broken relationship and flashing back to a recent evening in which their three teenage sons indulged in some exceptionally bad behavior.
The stalling tactics prove both illuminating and frustrating, altering the way we view the brothers while making an ugly evening more unpleasant, emotionally and cinematically. Is Paul crazy or bitterly sane? Is Stan the only one with an ethical compass or is he a corrupted soul? Is Claire a beacon of clarity or an entitled Lady Macbeth? And so on.
“The Dinner” is as venomous as an Edward Albee play and sometimes as entertaining, but it lacks Albee’s lacerating insistence on forcing his characters to face the truth about themselves. The farce of the meal itself, overseen by an eager-to-please maitre’d (Michael Chernus), is enjoyably absurd, with course descriptions along the lines of “a melted chocolate egg with parsnip cake and grapefruit on brazil nuts, edible flowers, and mint, topped with a salted whisky caramel sauce.” It’s fun simply to watch Paul scan the obscenely priced wine list and label it “an act of war.”
But the delays keep piling up. Stan is trying to get a bill passed with the help of his trusted aide (Adepero Oduye), Paul and Claire’s son Michael (Charlie Plummer) is lurking outside the restaurant, the film curves back in time to tell us about Claire’s bout with cancer and Paul’s obsession with the Civil War. One sequence diverts into a overlong museum-style mini-doc on the Battle of Gettysburg.
We get it: The brothers are engaged in an uncivil war of their own. Unfortunately, Moverman’s alienation-effect approach to filmmaking alienates us right out of the movie, with jittery camera effects and a truly exasperating sound mix that tries and fails to get us into the damaged head of one of the characters.
The actors can’t be faulted. It’s especially interesting to see Gere tackle a Master of the Universe type so soon after playing the opposite in the current “Norman.” But well before these people are done with dinner, we’re done with them. Just desserts, please, and the check.
Written and directed by Oren Moverman, based on a novel by Herman Koch. Starring Richard Gere, Laura Linney, Steve Coogan, Rebecca Hall. At Kendall Square, West Newton. 120 minutes. R (disturbing violent content, language throughout).Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.