The screen version of Edward Albee's play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a acknowledged classic, a subtly stylized and beautifully acted drama about two couples going through a booze-soaked dark-night-of-the-soul. Would it be improved by flashbacks to the couples' stormy past? Would it be improved by flashbacks to some needlessly obfuscated criminal incident? Would it be improved by allusions to Gettysburg? Of course not.
Yet here is The Dinner, director Oren Moverman's intensely irritating adaptation of Herman Koch's bestselling novel about a fateful evening when two bourgeois couples work through a family crisis over haute cuisine. For about 15 minutes in the final third, when all the cards are on the table and an the characters reckon with a moral crisis, the film finally suggests the Virginia Woolf intensity and consequentiality that it's been dancing around for over 90 minutes. And it gets there through the utter simplicity of four great actors directly addressing the elephant in the room. That's drama. There's often no point in complicating it.
The impulse to complicate it has been an achilles heel for Moverman, a filmmaker who's made extraordinary showcases for actors, Woody Harrelson in The Messenger and Rampart and Richard Gere in Time Out of Mind, but occasionally has trouble staying out of his own way. The Dinner amplifies his weaknesses by circling endlessly around the issue at hand, like a rambling storyteller who gets halfway through a sentence before deciding that more backstory is required and perhaps some context for the backstory, too. Meanwhile, his audience is signaling frantically for the check.
Moverman does get more fine performances out of his actors, however, including Gere, who's particularly good as Stan, a Democratic Congressman whose bid for the governorship is urgently threatened. Joined by his second wife, Kate (Rebecca Hall), Stan dines through multiple courses of shame and approbation at a high-end restaurant, where they meet with his mentally unstable brother Paul (Steve Coogan) and his wife, Claire (Laura Linney). At issue is the fallout from an earlier evening, when the sons of both couples committed a heinous crime in an ATM kiosk. With footage of the incident potentially going viral, they argue over whether to come clean to the police, which could land their sons in jail and end Stan's political career, or risk covering it up, which could do harm to their souls.
There are plenty of moral, practical, and political ramifications to the decision that must be made here, and the fractured relationships between the brothers and within these marriages and families make it more complicated still. Yet Moverman gums up the works with more information than required: There's backstory on Stan and Kate's adopted black son, who was with his stepbrother and cousin the night of the incident but didn't participate. There's more backstory on Stan's first wife (Chloe Sevigny), who died of some unspecified illness. There's a lot of futzing around with Paul's mental state, including his time as a U.S. history teacher, when he had a meltdown in front of his students and sunk into a Gettysburg obsession.
The Dinner goes through each course, from appetizers to aperitif, but only stays at the table long enough to snort at the militaristic formalities of the waitstaff and pretentious descriptions of what's being served. The diners never actually stay seated at the table, which makes some sense for Stan, who's trying to horse-trade votes for a piece of legislation, but winds up kicking the central confrontation down the road. While it's true that none of these characters can stand being in the same room with each other, they cannot avoid this crisis forever.
Neither can Moverman, as hard as he tries. Even without all the dilly-dallying, The Dinner would have a hard enough uphill battle to get the audience to care about four people it plainly holds in contempt. But the one scene where they finally go toe-to-toe is so good that it throws the rest of the film into sharp relief: Gere, Hall, Coogan, and Linney are terrific actors and the crisis at hand gives them ample dramatic headroom. Sometimes it's best simply to step back and watch the fireworks happen.