Tense conversation and high-end cuisine propel the plot of "The Dinner." Stanley (Richard Gere), a congressman in the midst of a gubernatorial campaign, and his history-scholar brother, Paul (Steve Coogan), along with their wives Claire (Laura Linney) and Kate (Rebecca Hall), meet for dinner at a chic restaurant. As course after ostentatious course is served, we gradually learn that the couple's teenaged sons recently committed a shocking crime, and the four have met in order to have "a civil discussion" about what steps to take next.
With the dinner providing the central thrust of the story, writer-director Oren Moverman jumps back and forth in time, taking tangents into past events which delve into issues of mental illness, class, and the privilege money brings to any crisis. The structure is meant to shift our sympathies and put us in the mindset of its characters, but too often it succeeds only in draining the film of its dramatic tension.
The premise itself is somewhat contrived: the fancy-pants restaurant makes a convenient thematic backdrop for the story's portrayal of moral decay covered up with elegant exteriors -- and for wringing occasional chuckles from the presentation of "burnt pumpernickel soil" and FDA-banned cheeses. But it seems unlikely that an image-conscious politician like Stanley would agree to have such a sensitive meeting in such a visible location.
All four actors dig admirably into the material (based on a novel by Howard Koch), and there's a fascinating contemptuousness of the characters that propels the movie, at least for a while. As the script continually finds excuses for characters to storm off from the table again and again, suspending the discussion at hand and dragging the meal out, the evening grows tedious. It's not until the final 20 minutes of "The Dinner" that the conversation comes to a head and things finally start to get interesting. But by that point I was already more than ready for the check to arrive.