“Apes.” It is high school teacher and avid history scholar Paul Lohman’s preferred term of abuse for his congressman brother Stan (Richard Gere) and his wife Katelyn (Rebecca Hall). And it is spat out by him, as played by a revelatory Steve Coogan, several times over, often to his wife Claire (Laura Linney) in Oren Moverman‘s unfeasibly compelling “The Dinner,” based on Herman Koch‘s bestselling novel. Then suddenly, unexpectedly, it is flung back in his face, rather the way primates are said to do with feces. This is a film that glories in juxtaposition, as exchanges of bestial ferocity hiss back and forth in an excruciatingly elegant destination restaurant, and as poisonously feral barbs are traded across a table laden with elaborately effete hors d’oeuvres. And for a great deal of its (admittedly overlong) running time, it’s amusing to watch these four characters tear verbal strips off one another, and to see them as not so very different from animals, despite their apparent position at the pinnacle of human sophistication. But by the end, which ramps up to a tachycardia-inducing level of zinging hysteria, it really seems the ape comparison is unjust. These people are so very, very much worse.
Our sympathies will swing wildly throughout like a pendulum — or perhaps a wrecking ball — but they rest initially with Paul and Claire as they bicker in their bedroom over going out that night. In a few quick lines, often of a sarcastic bent, Moverman, who also adapted the screenplay, delineates an offbeat but touchingly close marital relationship: at this point Paul’s reliance on Claire’s unwaveringly good-humored, calming support seems sweet — sinister will come later when he reveals the depth of his dysfunction and when she bares the fangs hidden in that dimpled smile. In the first of this talky, somewhat theatrical film’s red herrings, we cut from that warmth to the forbidding gun-gray interior of a car where Stan and Katelyn ride in icy silence, only broken by Stan’s devoted aide Nina (Adepero Oduye) who is organizing a big vote he is spearheading the following day, and by Katelyn’s gentle sniffling as she cries behind sunglasses. We are already on Paul and Claire’s side — and more especially on Paul’s as he talks to us in voiceover narration, extolling his erudite but scathing view of history (“American History — what is that? Learning about the American Revolution, I was always up for the Brits to win, I wanted the Native Americans to wipe out the Pilgrims.”)
The social satire/family drama then takes center stage as the foursome are subjected to the intrusive tyranny of over-attentive service in the ridiculously rarefied restaurant, where Stan is obsequiously waited on by sommeliers and well known to the maitre d’ (a lovely turn from Michael Chernus, providing what will prove to be some much needed normalcy). That irritates Paul, as does just about everything about Stan, whom he suspects of cronyism and phonyism and toward whom he bears an ancient grudge for having stolen more than his share of their mother’s affections.
But although characters this well drawn and well performed, in this fruitful, frightful “keep your voice down!” situation, would actually have been more than enough to power the film, we’ve barely scratched the surface of just how much else is going on here — undoubtedly rather too much, but the sin of expansive ambitions is an easy one to forgive. The reason for the dinner is for the couples to discuss an incident involving their children, a crime their sons committed that not all of those present know everything about. We the viewers are gradually clued in to it in a series of flashbacks (one further criticism is that there is, at least until the horrifying act itself, a somewhat desultory feeling to the scenes involving the kids, or maybe it’s just that those passages are not powered by the same kind of lived insight as those with the adults).
But there’s also the broader story of the film which is about Paul, and mental instability. It takes a hold particularly during a woozy extended montage of a visit he and Stan took to Gettysburg, which describes his decaying mind in jarring edits, dutch angles, colored filters and snatches of dialogue crazily overlapped with snippets from the audio guide tour of the site. Moverman did a little experimentation in his last film, “Time Out of Mind” which also starred Gere, but he pushes much further here, and the hallucinatory moments provide interesting, if never fully explored, counterpoints to the classic, four-way verbal theatrics that unfold over the dinner table.
Indeed, there is so much going on here, and all four main characters as well as Paul and Claire’s son Michael (Charlie Plummer) and Stan’s ex-wife Barbara (Chloe Sevigny) have so many secrets and psychoses of their own that need to be revealed, that the main issue is overload: there just isn’t enough time to explore all of the themes the runaway narrative’s turbines churn up in their wake. The Trump-era politics angle, for one thing, which was much vaunted in the advance publicity surrounding the film, feels undernourished. In fact the reference to Stan’s bill being put forward as part of the Affordable Care Act if anything serves to date the film’s topicality.
But the chief pleasure of “The Dinner” lies in the clash between social niceties and social nastiness (“You can stop smiling now, Stan, it’s just us” says Paul after his telegenic brother finishes working the room), and in four terrific performances than get to play all the colors of the emotional spectrum. Linney and Hall we expect it from, and while Gere has slightly smaller role, Moverman gets another later-career highlight from him. But it’s Coogan who is the surprise: after an initially worrying moment when it seems like he’s going full-Woody Allen-impersonation, his performance ripens into something much more surprising and weird. It’s maybe the first time in his “serious thespian” career that you can locate absolutely nothing of Alan Partridge in him — he even looks physically dissimilar, though the film’s many punishing close-ups give him nowhere to hide.
Indeed the cast and Moverman are all on immense if divisively heightened form right up to the irresolute, overwrought ending. But how else could a meal so massive and rich end but with a dose of indigestion? “History is over,” Paul preaches at us at one point, “Everything is happening this second.” And in this scabrous drama-comedy-satire-psychological-horror hybrid, almost to the point of breathless incoherence at times, everything always is. [B/B+]