Herman Koch’s 2009 novel was an international best-seller, but it’s highly unlikely that Oren Moverman’s English-language adaptation of it will achieve a remotely similar degree of success. “The Dinner” is, like Roman Polanski’s 2011 “God of Carnage” (aka “Carnage”), a story about two apparently sophisticated couples whose lives are upended by disagreements over the behavior of their children. Moverman’s is actually the third screen version of the book: there’s already a 2013 Dutch film by Menno Meyjes, and a 2014 Italian adaptation by Ivano De Matteo. Perhaps one of those earlier pictures got it right; this one, despite a fine cast, is basically an interesting but frustrating mess.
The setting is a dinner at an ultra-ritzy restaurant in some unnamed city. The couple that arrives first consists of Paul Lohman (Steve Coogan), an erstwhile history teacher with a short-fuse temper, and his elegant, supportive wife Claire (Laura Linney). As a prologue shows, Paul doesn’t much want to go, and he’s also concerned over their teen son Michael (Charlie Plummer), who’s hanging out with Anna (Laura Hajek), an older girl he has qualms about. But he allows Claire to drag him to the place, where they will meet his brother Stan (Richard Gere), a US congressman running for governor, and his (second) wife Kate (Rebecca Hall). She’s stepmother to her husband’s teen son Rick (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) by his first marriage to Barbara (Chloe Sevigny). They also have an adopted son, Beau (Miles J. Harvey), from Africa.
The dinner, one of those theatrical affairs hosted by a prissily histrionic maitre d’ (Michael Chernus) and an assortment of wait staff, elicits a barrage of contemptuous comments from Paul, who clearly loathes his brother. It doesn’t help that Stan is constantly being called away by his devoted aide Nina (Adepero Oduye) regarding a vote count on an important piece of legislation he’s sponsoring. But more troubling is the fact that the four are harboring a terrible secret: Michael and Rick tormented a homeless woman (Onika Day) they happened upon at an ATM machine, with horrifying results, and footage of the episode taken by Michael on his phone has appeared on the Internet, sparking public outrage. It was posted by Beau, who is demanding a substantial payment with threats that unless it is forthcoming, he will reveal the perpetrators’ identities.
Frankly the whole setup defies logic; why intelligent people would meet in such a place to discuss this kind of matter is never explained. It’s all just a literary device that Koch confected in order to italicize the critique of class and culture he wanted the story to represent. On the page the affectation isn’t so apparent, but transferred to the screen, the periodic outbursts around the table cannot help but attract the attention of other customers. Why would anybody risk being overheard?
And there is plenty of shouting, since Paul is off his meds and raging at everything. Moverman tosses in flashbacks to depict Paul’s condition, including clips from his classroom sessions with students he can’t interest in the material (and therefore excoriates with highly inappropriate comments) and recollections of the time when Claire was hospitalized and his attempts to take care of Michael alone nearly tore the family apart. There are also inserts showing the poisonous relationship between Paul and Stan, including a long and disastrous trip the two made to the Gettysburg battlefield, supposedly occasioned by Paul’s interest in writing a book about the Civil War but actually designed to serve as a heavy-handed counterpoint to the fraternal conflict between the two men. As if all that weren’t enough, a series of flashbacks reveal gradually what happened at that ATM.
It’s possible that all these narrative strands could have been ordered in a way that would provide clarity and enlightenment, but apart from the dinner itself, Moverman’s staging is so sloppy and Bobby Bukowski’s hand-held camerawork so muddy that the effect is chaotic, and Alex Hall’s editing fails to knit everything together in a crisp package. Things improve during the culminating debate at the restaurant, when the script throws a curveball when it reveals which of the four diners actually demonstrates a moral compass (or at least appears to do so). But after that a post-dinner sequence goes completely awry, coming off like a box of fireworks that’s been set ablaze accidentally, and the inconclusive ending is an unqualified miscalculation.
Still, the cast elevates the material. Gere brings smoothness laced with desperation to Stan, and Coogan is febrile and intense (too much so, perhaps) as the troubled Paul . Linney is cool until the last act, when she turns into a force of nature in what amounts to a frenzied mother’s monologue, and while Hall has the most thankless role, she gets at least a few moments when she can let loose. Oduye is fine, but Sevigny and Plummer are pretty much wasted, and Chernus is simply too bumptious to convince us that he would be hired at such an exclusive establishment. (Actually the place, as designed by Kelly McGehee, doesn’t look all that exceptional.)
To be honest, Koch’s book is pretty much a stunt, one of those novels that pretends to be profound but is really little more than glorified pulp. But it nonetheless worked as a compulsive page-turner. Moverman’s adaptation merely makes you want to turn it off.