Go ahead and give the 2018 Academy Award for Best Actor to Steve Coogan.
No, that’s not a daydream courtesy of the exaggerated, professionally frustrated version the British comic plays in his The Trip series. And no, in reality he’s not likely to make any year-end Best Of lists beyond those of a few brave souls, but he really is that good in The Dinner as Paul Lohman, an unhinged New Yorker with a lot on his literal and metaphorical plates.
Adapted from the Herman Koch novel by the same name, the film is the latest hard-hitting, universally well-acted and impeccably shot drama by Oren Moverman (Rampart), who loops in his Time Out of Mind star Richard Gere as Paul’s congressman brother Stan.
Neither sibling nor Paul’s wife Claire (Laura Linney) and Katelyn (Rebecca Hall), a.k.a. the new Mrs. Stan, are exactly excited to meet up for the titular meal at a hip restaurant, but they do and the fireworks they produce are a treat to witness.
In the crosshairs of their angst is the restaurant’s head waiter (Michael Chernus), doing his damnedest to put on a good show and describe the dishes in detail to people who could barely care less.
Significant uncomfortable humor stems from him and the establishment’s owner (Joel Bissonnette) struggling to stay professional in the face of Paul’s and Katelyn’s rampant rudeness while Claire and Stan – pulled away by his faithful assistant Nina (Adepero Oduye) for campaign business – take more polite exits from the table.
To illustrate how the family Lohman came to be such a cheerful bunch, Moverman cuts to a series of flashbacks, first with the reliable Chloë Sevigny as Paul’s ex-wife Barbara, then more firmly focusing on Paul.
As his character’s mental health deteriorates, starting in his high school history classroom and progressing to scenes with a clearly concerned Stan at home and a thrillingly executed stretch at Gettysburg, Coogan fulfills his director’s trust in being the center of The Dinner’s many long takes, exhibiting a range largely unseen in the actor’s prior work.
While these timeline tangents excel at informing the present-day tension, they occasionally disrupt the evening’s flow to the point that there’s concern if the formerly main storyline has been abandoned.
There’s also some awkward initial uncertainty regarding how the parallel late night misadventures of three teenage boys fit in with the four adults’ fine dining, but it – like the film’s other key revelations – come to light in their own sweet and carefully choreographed time to great success.
Grade: B-plus. Rated R. Now playing at Carolina Cinemark and Grail Moviehouse
**What Next? and Dinner Party Fodder for The Dinner: bonus insight and follow-up film suggestions, available exclusively to patrons.**
(Photo: The Orchard)