In the four films he's directed, Oren Moverman has mounted what feels like a career-long inquiry into the lost soul of America. That may be a crushingly pretentious thing to say about a filmmaker who shuffles moods, genres and visual palettes with enviable ease, and who can leap from the sun-streaked LAPD noir of "Rampart" (2011) to the gloomy Manhattan neorealism of "Time Out of Mind" (2014) without breaking a sweat.
But in each of those earlier pictures, and in his piercingly sad debut, "The Messenger" (2009), the director projected a chastening moral vision of a country that had on some fundamental level forsaken its own. He gave us despairing snapshots of men who found themselves on the outskirts of civilian society — a pair of soldiers tasked with notifying the bereaved, a dirty cop, a homeless man on the verge of fading away — and asked us to consider the world that had necessitated their particular strain of torment.
"The Dinner," Moverman's elegant and acerbic fourth feature, both continues and disrupts his style of social critique. Adapted and Americanized from the Dutch novelist Herman Koch's bestselling book (which has already inspired two earlier film versions), the movie has something to say about class struggle, racial tension and mental illness in this country, all couched in a withering portrait of the moneyed elite. Set over the course of one long evening, "The Dinner" turns a high-end double date into a seething evisceration of the upper class and the moral rot lurking beneath its well-heeled facade.
This is not a new or especially interesting dramatic thesis, and not even Moverman's ability to find nuance in the cracks of a familiar story can quite offset the sense that we are watching an artificial construct, a cleverly rigged parlor game that fancies itself a moral lament. You admire the skill and wit of the performers — a superb cast led by Steve Coogan, Laura Linney, Richard Gere and Rebecca Hall — in much the same way you might savor the movie's candlelit ambience. For all the actors' commitment and ferocity, the experience they offer feels less like a confrontation with the anxieties of modern life than a plush, moody escape.
The dinner in question has been called by Stan Lohman (Gere), a slick congressman and gubernatorial candidate who must put politics aside for one evening to deal with some unpleasant family business. He and his wife, Katelyn (Hall), join his abrasive brother, Paul (Coogan), and his wife, Claire (Linney), at the sort of posh dining establishment where the waiters serve up ornate postmodern culinary sculptures and painstakingly identify each ingredient by geographical origin.
Paul, a high-school history teacher with an advanced degree in misanthropy, spends a lot of time mocking the restaurant's pretensions, even as he strikes up an improbable friendship with the nervous but resourceful host (a charming Michael Chernus). He makes little secret of how much he resents Stan for his narcissism, his celebrity and his very long shadow, though in truth, Paul may like himself even less. His withering assessments of everyone and everything around him are a way of deflecting his own crippling sense of failure, which he in turn sees as evidence of the wretchedness of all humanity.
The troubling incident that has brought the Lohmans together would seem only to confirm Paul's worldview. Several nights ago, his son, Michael (Charlie Plummer), and Stan's son, Rick (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick), stumbled across a homeless woman inside a bank ATM booth, initiating some drunken teenage high jinks that ended … badly. Just how badly is gradually revealed in one set of flashbacks; suffice it to say that the fallout could derail Stan's political career and destroy the boys' future, a prospect that has sent the family into damage-control mode.
Moverman spends a lot of time fleshing out the family's more distant history, intercutting Paul's memories of everything from Claire's cancer diagnosis years earlier to Stan's first wife, Barbara (Chloë Sevigny). The flashbacks, most of which are brightly lighted to offset the restaurant's dim interiors, get to be a bit much, but they also nicely suggest the convulsive inner workings of Paul's deeply troubled mind. His synapses are firing like crazy, and the audience has a front-row seat.
Stripped of both his British accent and his comic flair (and with no Rob Brydon to spar with over all this haute cuisine), Coogan gives a deliberately alienating performance that is by far the picture's riskiest element. His Paul seethes, rants and turns physically violent when the occasion suits him, and he thaws only in the presence of his son, Michael, who can't stand him. (Plummer is excellent as a good-looking kid who has clearly inherited a measure of his dad's sociopathic side.)
Gere, who gave an excellent change-of-pace performance as the homeless protagonist of "Time Out of Mind" (Moverman's best and least-seen picture), is unsurprisingly fine as a silver-haired politico who winds up showing more spine than most would give him credit for. His determination to do the right thing proves particularly offensive to the Lohman women, both of whom have made too many sacrifices to lose everything now: Hall has poignant moments as a wife all too aware of her second-class position in the family, while Linney peels back her character's serene surface to reveal some of the icy maternal ruthlessness she displayed in "Mystic River."
As barbed marital four-handers go, "The Dinner" may be a contrived and diagrammatic piece of work, but it's also considerably richer and more human than a hollow snarkfest like Roman Polanski's "Carnage." Here, at least, the characters are allowed to live and breathe in three dimensions before the director goes in for the kill. And if the movie is an indictment of their complacency, it at least acknowledges the messiness of the world that lurks beyond, and occasionally penetrates, the Lohmans' bubble.
At times, Moverman directs our attention to the black characters on the periphery of the story — from Stan's adopted son, Beau (Miles J. Harvey) and his poker-faced assistant, Nina (Adepero Oduye), to the homeless woman who has inadvertently set this drama in motion. You'll want to see and hear more from them, though their marginalization is hardly an accident; it's essential to the picture's point about the ugliness of the American legacy and what it means, and has always meant, for people who don't look, talk, sound and live like the Lohmans.
"The Dinner" might start to lose you by the time Paul, drawing on his knowledge of history, starts ranting about the Battle of Gettysburg and the personal point of no return that it may represent. But go with it. You've heard dumber Civil War references, possibly even this week.
MPAA rating: R, for disturbing violent content, and language throughout
Running time: 2 hours
Playing: In general release