The gathering of dysfunctional family members at an event, during which some terrible secret is revealed and everything goes to shit, is a narrative set-up that tops my list of guilty-pleasure novels and films. So I couldn’t help but enjoy Oren Moverman’s drama, though a more cold-eyed assessor might quibble about soapiness or its rather stagey nature.
It’s a film that opens with close-ups of exquisitely prepared food — the main act occurs at a pretentious restaurant, in which two couples meet for dinner. There’s married couple Claire (Laura Linney) and Paul (Steve Coogan), plus Paul’s politician brother, Stan (Richard Gere), and his wife, Kate (Rebecca Hall). The focus of the get-together is to hash over something their teenage children did, but this meal comes at the end of decades of troubles and ill feelings, as well as a tricky new beginning (Stan is running for higher office). The evening unfolds from appetizer to aperitif, with flashbacks slowly revealing all the details.
It’s a lot of juicy emotional damage being slung around by four actors quite adept at being entertainingly passive-aggressive. Unfortunately, the teenagers, whose careless act forms the catalyst of the drama, remain largely ciphers, and makes this important part of the story feel more contrived. But there are smaller, richer nuggets to mine regarding marriage, parenting and illness. The nonlinear structure is a bit of a jumble, and The Dinner is about 15 minutes too long. But if you like these sorts of melodramas about how awful upper-middle-class people really can be when facing challenges, book a seat. Starts Fri., May 5. Harris