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'Melvin Goes To Dinner' january 16 2004, 03:16 am
submitted by: normal mc

I’ve always been a big fan of dialogue driven character studies in film. Whether it’s the whip-crack quickness of ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’ (adapted from Mamet’s stage play), the world-weariness of Hal Hartley’s ‘Trust’ or the lowbrow/highbrow, dick-and-fart jokes of Kevin Smith, nothing is more exciting in a film than good, sharp dialogue from well-developed characters. Save me from the tits, guns and explosions and give me a one-liner I can co-opt as my own, that’s all I ask.

Sometimes a film comes along filled with the type of conversations you’ve had with friends and family – or wished you’d had with them. A character on-screen is your cinematic avatar, he or she shares your moral code or social style, and you really connect. Such is the case with the film ‘Melvin Goes To Dinner’. The interesting thing being this – I see myself in all the main characters, not just one.

‘Melvin Goes To Dinner’ is a sharp, quick exploration of four intriguing people and how they react to each other over the course of a dinner. First time director Bob Odenkirk (of HBO’s ‘Mr. Show’) paces the film beautifully, adding cutaways and flashbacks at just the right time, adapting the film from a one-set stage play with ease. Clocking in at just about one hour and twenty minutes, ‘Melvin Goes To Dinner’ leaves the audience wondering where these characters end up next, and under what circumstances. The ideas, stories, theories, etc. touched upon in ‘Melvin; lend themselves to spirited post-film debate; very thought provoking and to some, quite personal.

Michael Blieden, the writer of ‘Phyro-Giants!’, the play of which ‘Melvin’ is adapted plays Melvin, a shockingly honest, non-committal man who, like many of us, seems to be trying to ‘find himself’. He mistakenly calls his old friend Joey (Matt Price) and is invited out to dinner that evening. His awkward everyman approach to Melvin is equal parts brave and uncomfortable (witness the porn debate). Early on, his open honesty plays in stark contrast to Sarah (Annabelle Gurwitch, TV’s ‘Dinner And A Movie’), one of his other dinner companions. Sarah seems a bit aloof, dragged into this dinner by her friend Alex (Stephanie Courtney). Courtney is all charm and energy, the tomboy-ish old friend of Joey.

The conversations are spirited and quick, topics range from pornography, belief in God and infidelity to the belief in ghosts. Conversation films can easily go sour quickly when the characters become argumentative and contrary; thankfully this is not the case in ‘Melvin’. I guarantee you will find one statement, one idea communicated in this film that you identify with, be it Joey’s agnosticism or Alex’s paranormal beliefs. While all characters manage to reveal just enough of themselves to draw interest, you do feel at the end you know enough about them to theorize what you think would be an accurate future for them.

This haphazard dinner party is equal parts strangers and reconnected old friends. Everyone reveals something and someone else makes a connection based on the secrets that come out. The connections happen so quickly, and the company is parted almost as quick. I'd have loved to see another half-hour with this gang.

One would have gotten bored if we stayed at the restaurant the whole time, that’s why Odenkirk’s flashbacks and cuts work so well. The angles and shots are clear and defined. Odenkirk as a first time director shows promise; I look forward to his future efforts. I think the decision to use the original cast of the ‘Phyro’ stage play was a good call; the cast’s intimate knowledge of the material was apparent which led to a more believable dialogue.

As if that weren’t enough, add a brief but funny cameo by David Cross and an absolute scene-stealer from an un-credited Jack Black as a mentally challenged hospital visitor (both utilized in flashback mode). Odenkirk shows up as an ex-boyfriend, Maura Tierney (‘ER') is Melvin’s enabling sister, in a role added for the film, and Melora Walters (‘Magnolia’) plays Melvin’s object of unhealthy affection. Another ARFIE favorite, Michael Penn, does the music. I have yet to get the track that plays over the end credits out of my head. There is just too much to like about this movie.

The DVD includes two informative commentary tracks, scenes from the original ‘Phyro-Giants!’ stage play and a mockumentary on the ‘Frank International Film Festival’, featuring current SNL member Fred Armisen and select ‘Melvin’ cast members.

I wasn’t expecting much going into this, having only the Bob O. connection to interest me. Nothing screams pretentious quite like four white people in their late 20’s drinking wine and talking for an hour and-a-half, but thanks to the direction, the dialogue and performances, it remains interesting and unexpected. There are laugh-out-loud moments and uncomfortable silences – must haves in any movie I see.

And when you throw in a killer plot twist – one which caught me completely off-guard - you have one terrific film. Once again, as is my habit, this review is not doing this film justice. Go see it now.

Read the ARF interview with Michael Blieden here.

comments...   add a comment...

kid dexterity
kid dexterity 1186 posts
comment no. 1

It's fun to see a style evolve over the decades. What's also interesting is the thematic elements this kind of style uses and reuses. In the case of a 'coversation film,' you'll need a venue for the conversations to occur, something that's going to keep people in one place for a while so they can actually get a dialogue going. The '80s brought us dinner table fare in the seminal My Dinner with Andre, and amongst other efforts of the '90s, The Last Supper stands out as adhering to the 'dinner table formula.' I think I'll probably see this Blieden/Odenkirk film; I'll be interested to see how the 21st century revisits this tried and true style.

Strangely enough, the only other venue I can think of at the moment that seems to strictly fit the conversation film form is prison, a la Kiss of the Spider Woman. Sure, there are other films that could be classified as 'conversational,' like the now-seemingly-arty-farty Hiroshima mon amour, and even Barcelona to some degree, but these certainly don't follow the same kind of formula. Can anyone else think of any other films or venues that adhere to this dinner table style?

dj tanner
dj tanner 4789 posts
comment no. 2

Norm let me borrow this movie when I was home for ArfieGras II: The Wrath of Norm, and let me tell you folks, it is a very good movie! Go rent it, it is an interesting and funny bit of fun!

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