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Writer-director Oren Moverman assaults our sensibilities with ideological posturing

Photo: (l-r) Steve Coogan as Paul, Laura Linney as Claire, Richard Gere as Stan, and Rebecca Hall as Kate in ‘The Dinner’ Rating: R; Grade: B

By T.T. Stern-Enzi

“The Dinner” challenges assumed political and cultural sensibilities, presenting a progressive history teacher named Paul Lohman (Steve Coogan) as a pompous asshole who, in truth, may not be as liberal as he thinks. Is it truly progressive to be racist in thought and deed, because you can hide behind a post-racial barrier that you believe to be as powerful a metaphoric symbol as Captain America’s shield? That’s quite a loaded question now, in light of the Marvel comic book re-imagining of the iconic character as a fascistic Nazi secret agent.

Paul considers his brother Stan (Richard Gere) to be a crass ape, a congressman with his attention on securing the necessary votes for a meaningful piece of legislation (mental health support) that could define his legacy. It is no surprise that Paul scoffs at an invitation from Stan, for the brothers and their respective spouses—Claire (Laura Linney) and Kate (Rebecca Hall)—to meet for dinner at a posh restaurant, known for its esoteric culinary creations and its obsequious wait staff. The family gathering, we come to realize, concerns a serious matter, the revelation that their boys have engaged in a damningly anti-social and highly criminal act that is on the verge of leaking across social media.

The central conceit of writer-director Oren Moverman’s film is that its “chapters” play out as courses during this outrageously elaborate meal. The narrative wanders through a tangled web of past encounters, dredging up old wounds, Stan’s ex-wife (Chloë Sevigny), and much of Paul’s toxic racial hostility, which curiously manifests itself in his feelings toward his adopted African-American nephew Beau (Miles J. Harvey). Moverman has shown a real proclivity for tackling challenging contemporary themes—from the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (“The Messenger”) to the urban conflicts policed by renegade cops (“Rampart”)—when he’s not writing screenplays about the dilemmas faced by musical geniuses like Bob Dylan (“I’m Not There”) and Brian Wilson (“Love & Mercy”).

The major obstacle in “The Dinner” arises from the distinct hostility audiences will feel toward Paul and, gradually, everyone else at this caustic dinner party. From the very start, Paul’s arrogance disposes us to keep him at a healthy remove, even though we might share, in theory, some aspects of his ideology. It becomes obvious that Paul has staked out a position at the extreme left of the spectrum and cut out his own heart along the way, burying it on the long, solitary journey to that desperate end. He no longer cares for or about anyone other than his immediate family, and even those bonds appear tenuous at best.

On the flip side, Stan proves to be the far more human and humane figure on display, despite being pulled in multiple directions at once. He is the consummate political happy-warrior, glad-handing any and everyone in sight. He understands that relationships lead to votes and every contact is meaningful. His time and attention at the meal is split between phone calls about the status of votes for his bill and the fate of his sons. We come to appreciate that Stan has a strong familial conscience. He is fiercely loyal to his brother and his own brood.

But as a public figure, Stan has the most to lose if the situation with their boys explodes, yet he seems intent on finding the in solution that satisfies the greatest overall good for all parties involved. You could argue that their dilemma would test the collective wisdom of both Solomon and David, but most audiences, after taking a second to clearly look at the facts, would see that there is only one, sad choice.

And so, things play out in similar fashion for viewers of “The Dinner.” The tough decision is to sit through this dark and cynical morality tale with a black hole of a character in Paul who sucks the life, ethics, and moral integrity out of everyone around him. By the end of this sordid affair, Moverman wants to leave us with a hint of ambiguity, but we know what needs to be done and how the narrative should be resolved.

“The Dinner” sets up a long and winding road that, at times, twists unnecessarily back on itself, seeking to create complexity while forcing us to question our own moral compasses. The invitation here seems to want to mimic the bitter mania of the Mike Nichols’ classic “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” but there are too many intrusions from the outside world, distracting us from the stifling claustrophobia that can come from being locked in tight quarters with those you love (and hate) the most. But who knows, that may have been too much to endure.