Moody and, at times, infused with esoteric material, the third adaptation of Herman Koch’s novel, “The Dinner” is a consistently interesting showcase for the serious side of Steve Coogan.
Directed by Oren Moverman (“The Messenger” and “Rampart”), who also pens the screenplay, “The Dinner” earnestly tells the story of two brothers grappling with their troubled sons. Paul (Steve Coogan) is a struggling high school teacher, who has experienced some sort of emotional breakdown. His wife, Claire (Laura Linney), is coping with Paul’s mental health condition. Paul’s brother, Stan (Richard Gere), is a self-absorbed politician, whose support staff is constantly lurking in the background. Stan’s current wife, Katelyn (Rebecca Hall), is a no-nonsense authoritarian.
The two couples gather at an exclusive restaurant for a multiple course dinner. It’s like a place frequented by the cast of “Eyes Wide Shut.” And while the food and service is lavish and should make for a positive memorable dining experience, the foursome have heavier matters that will inevitably drag the mood of the evening down. Their sons may have done something terrible and damage control is desperately needed.
A fascinating chamber piece feeling very much a part of the school of David Mamet, “The Dinner” is ultimately a muddy looking stage play. While attention will be paid to Coogan and his method acting in which he mines the same persona from his failed TV series “Happyish,” the supporting cast is certainly impressive. Richard Gere gets the second best of the roles, as his Stan tries to keep Paul together long enough to address the growing juvenile delinquent family disaster.
When the four actors sit at a table over drinks and high end food and bark at one another, “The Dinner” is most bearable and interesting. But as the action leaves the noirish restaurant setting through a series of sometimes confusing flashbacks (or whatever), the film loses its way. This is especially true during a positively confounding sequence involving the battle of Gettysburg and the Civil War. Yes, that Civil War, the one that took place long after President Andrew Jackson had passed away.
Frustrating is how muddy and fuzzy the entire film looks and the uneven quality of the sound mix. There seems to be a constant rumble designed into the audio that reminds one of Robert Altman’s efforts to immerse viewers into the environment using an array of microphones. Here it is frustrating. I watched the film twice shifting to three different sound systems in an effort to determine whether the problem was related to my setup. In the end, I concluded that the ambient and unnerving rumble was intentional.
The visuals also hail from the indie school, which I admit was a little refreshing. A collection of medium wide angles and long shots, it is obvious the approach was to shoot quickly in a way meant to capture the action organically (hoping to feel very real and authentic). But some viewers might is distracted by the dark hues that make “The Dinner” feel more like a thriller (an arguably appropriate genre designation here) and less like a dramatic acting showcase.
Coogan does good work in “The Dinner.” He approaches Paul with a deadpan seriousness that conveys a man on the edge of losing himself. It is similar to the performance he delivered in “Happyish,” a single season show in which he stepped into a role meant for the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. With this performance, it is clear that Coogan has shaken off any Alan Partridge type-casting, and he’s ready for something meatier with a role in a better film. “The Dinner” isn’t that movie.