CATE Blanchett intended to make her debut as a feature director with this film adaptation of Dutch author Herman Koch's chilling bestseller.
When she parted ways with the project, screenwriter Oren Moverman stepped up.
Since no official explanation has been given, it's tempting to attribute Blanchett's departure to creative differences.
As a performer, the two-time Oscar winner is fearless.
Surely Blanchett's version of The Dinner, about two couples who meet at an exclusive restaurant to discuss their sons' heinous-but-thus-far-undetected crime, would have gone straight for the narrative jugular.
Moverman, who directed Richard Gere in his critically acclaimed passion project Time Out of Mind (2014), is more squeamish.
As a filmmaker, he skirts around the edges of the book's misanthropic brutality, focusing on the backstory of its unreliable narrator, Paul Lohman (Steve Coogan), instead.
Moverman signals Lohman's psychological instability from the get go when, in an early scene with wife Claire (Laura Linney), he becomes stuck in a repetitive thought loop.
It's a strong performance from Coogan, an actor with a knack for making the most unsympathetic character compulsively watchable.
Humour is one of his tools of trade. Since there are precious few laughs in The Dinner, the role amounts to a considerable dramatic stretch.
Linney keeps a tight rein on his controlling wife, Claire.
Rounding out the strong ensemble cast is Gere's successful senator Stan Lohman, who infuriates Paul even further by keeping his cool in the face of his brother's constant hectoring, and Rebecca Hall as Stan's younger, trophy wife, Katelyn.
But Moverman's decision to flesh out his story with flashbacks and expositional digressions wrests Koch's lean, mean thriller out of shape.
Even the impact of the boys' shocking crime is somehow diluted.
The titular dinner is just plain annoying.
What was designed as a narrative framing device, symbolising the tension between sophisticated social conventions and the base primal instincts that run underneath, has morphed into an absurd, self-consciously foodie degustation.
A disappointingly mannered and over-thunk film interpretation of Koch's bare-knuckled literary thriller.
The Dinner opens on Thursday (September 7).
THE DINNER (M)
Director: Oren Moverman
Starring: Steve Coogan, Richard Gere, Laura Linney
Verdict: Reheated melodrama, two-and-a-half stars
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