Oren Moverman was born in the second half of the '60s in Tel Aviv and has written two of Hollywood's farthest-out films about pop geniuses from that period. One is I'm Not There (2007), in which a gaggle of actors — including an 11-year-old black boy and a female award winner — play Bob Dylan at various phases of his career. The other is 2014's brilliant Love & Mercy, featuring Brian Wilson portrayed by the tag team of John Cusack and Paul Dano.
You might assume that the connective tissue between these two unusual pictures and the rest of Moverman's oeuvre is the filmmaker's affinity for complex character studies. But his richly varied body of work has another common thread running through it, and its name is Richard Gere.
The actor took on the role of Billy the Kid in I'm Not There. In 2014, he did perhaps the least characteristic work of his career in Time Out of Mind (the title of a 1997 Dylan album!), the story of a homeless man who seeks reconnection with his daughter. And here he is, smooth as ever, in the writer-director's latest, a searing but mouthwatering serving of social commentary.
The Dinner is adapted from the best-selling 2009 novel by Dutch author Herman Koch. It's a powerful meditation on class privilege, family dynamics, affluenza and mental illness. But mainly mental illness. With the exception of flashbacks, it takes place over the course of a single evening, primarily in a single setting — a restaurant where the elite meet to eat.
Two couples convene to discuss something horrific their children have done and decide which actions to take. Gere is Stan Lohman, a popular U.S. congressman who's running for governor. His brother Paul is played by Steve Coogan, in one of the most fearless casting choices of recent times.
We're used to watching the multitalented Brit dining in fine restaurants — a third installment of The Trip series is due later this year. We've never seen him do anything remotely like what he does here, however. Coogan's raw, riveting transformation into a former teacher battling — and losing ground to — psychological problems is the key ingredient in this thoughtfully layered concoction.
Rebecca Hall is full of surprises as Katelyn, Stan's trophy wife. She offers almost as many as Laura Linney, who plays Claire, Paul's long-suffering life mate. It's Claire who, we gradually realize, is pulling way more strings behind the scenes than Gere's cunning character or anyone else. Talk about complex character studies. Every time we think we've got a grip on the dynamic here, Moverman brings some new twist to the table, like a waiter lifting the lid of a surprise dish sent by the chef.
Playing the maître d' caught in the middle, Michael Chernus proffers a priceless side of comic relief. As the tension grows, his insanely detailed descriptions of the restaurant's pretentious fare diffuse the darkening mood deliciously.
One hopes those with a taste for smartly written, superbly acted movies about things that matter in the real world will sample The Dinner. Moverman is active in the Campaign to Change Direction, an organization dedicated to destigmatizing mental health issues, and his passion for the cause is ingrained in every frame of this film.
It has so much to say about so many important things. What a shame someone decided it should open the same weekend as Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. That isn't counterprogramming. Unless you want a world with nothing to watch but superhero movies, it's just counterproductive.