Melvin Goes To Dinner marks the directorial debut of Bob Odenkirk, whose credits include a stint writing for Saturday Night Live and wearing pretty much every conceivable hat throughout the production of the near-legendary HBO sketch comedy series Mr. Show. That, coupled with the core of its content -- a movie that revolves around a lengthy dinner conversation -- may leave some viewers anticipating some hellspawned hybrid of Mr. Show and My Dinner With André. The comedic elements of Melvin Goes To Dinner don't bear even a passing resemblance to late-night sketch comedy, though it is very funny and is as unflinching as Mr. Show in the variety of topics it covers. The film also runs the emotional gamut, and simply slapping the 'Comedy' label on it is almost dismissive. Comparisons to My Dinner With André are more valid, though I don't recall Wally Shawn or André Gregory bringing up beastiality, anal sex, masturbation, or spectral visits from long-dead children. The story, such as it is, unfolds in a less linear fashion as well.
I'm getting ahead of myself, though. Melvin Goes To Dinner, adapted from the stage play Phyro-Giants!, is a movie that's less interested in plot than its characters. There's no public transportation with bombs superglued to its undercarriage, no crazed leprechauns trying to reclaim a stolen pot o' gold, and no one-man army exacting revenge on a legion of drug-addled crimelords for mercilessly murdering his family. No, Melvin Goes To Dinner is simply about four thirty-somethings who wind up dining together one evening. Calling them friends wouldn't be entirely accurate -- there seems to be at one total stranger for every person at the table. Melvin essentially lives out of his office but seems determined to avoid doing any work, devoting every waking hour to making himself available for a destructive affair with a married woman. After inadvertently calling his old friend Joey, a disinterested corporate suit, they agree to get together for dinner. Joey's also arranged to meet up with Alex, a gal pal from his college days, who's dragged along her friend Sarah that she stumbled upon on the way to the bistro. They begin chatting about innocuous topics such a a ghost moving a rhinoplastastic statue across a room, progressively moving into religion and later more lurid areas like pot-fueled masturbation and marital infidelity. As the copy on the cover art teases, that's just the appetizer.
Melvin Goes To Dinner features the same cast as the original play, so the four leads are expectedly intimately familiar with the bulk of the material. The dialogue is well-written and realistic to begin with, but it's the delivery that really sells it, something that would have been unlikely to reproduce with a different group of actors at the wheel. The stammering, the near-manic energy, the way they excitedly stumble over each other's words, and a course of discussion that simultaneously seems both scattershot and logical are all incredibly convincing. Meticulous scripting and innumerable runthroughs are required for dialogue to sound this spontaneous. The cinema verite style of filmmaking and the use of handheld cameras further contribute to that sense of realism, as does Odenkirk's emphasis on capturing the reactions of the other diners while someone is speaking. Although an 83 minute movie revolving around a dinner conversation may not sound all that compelling, Melvin Goes To Dinner just works. Its mission statement seems to be to try to elicit as broad a spectrum of emotional responses from the audience as possible -- hysterical laughter, a bit of sadness, tension -- and it hits the mark dead-on each and every time. Its characters aren't the two-dimensional cardboard cutouts seen in similar fare like the critically reviled Whipped. Like most flesh and blood people, they have quite a bit in common yet seem completely different from one another. As they air their dirty laundry on the table, it becomes increasingly clear that none of them are without flaws. The characters and their ordeals are easily relatable, even to those who haven't been in vaguely similar situations. Its accessibility extends beyond the sort of strictly arthouse fare some may associate with the Sundance Channel, who picked up the movie for broadcast and home video release after it made the rounds on the festival circuit. Melvin Goes To Dinner is a great movie to sit down and enjoy with a group of friends, and its DVD release is reasonably impressive as well, including a letterboxed presentation, two audio commentaries, and a related short film by Bob Odenkirk.
Video: Melvin Goes To Dinner is letterboxed to an aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and is not enhanced for widescreen displays, despite what some of the early specs floating around claimed. With the exception of one sequence, the movie was shot on video, processed in post-production to give it more of a film-like appearance. I haven't been at all impressed by some projects I've seen that have taken a similar approach (Melvin... uses Magic Bullet rather than the FilmLook process I'm more familiar with), but Melvin Goes To Dinner pulls it off reasonably well, finding solid footing in the vast middle ground between CBS soap opera-grade video and a slick 35mm production. Because the movie bypassed an intermediate celluloid step, the flaws typically associated with film transfers are absent. It's a clean, colorful, fairly sharp image with some video noise that infrequently creeps in, most noticeably during the dimly-lit exteriors that close the film. It's almost beyond any doubt that this dates back to the original source material and accordingly shouldn't be considered a flaw in the presentation, but for viewers who expect an impeccably pristine experience when they pop a DVD into their home theaters, consider this to be a heads-up. (For obvious reasons, I'm not lumping the stylized flashbacks into that group.) An anamorphic widescreen presentation would've been preferred, but I don't have any major qualms with the quality of the video.
Audio: Melvin Goes To Dinner is closed-captioned and includes a Dolby Digital 2.0 surround (192Kbps) soundtrack. The matrixed rears are fairly prominent early on, constantly chirping with cars whizzing by and the sounds of silverware clinking against plates. They still exhibit some activity later on -- crashing waves and David Cross' motivational speech, to name a couple -- but as the conversation intensifies, the evening grows later and later, and the crowd at the restaurant thins out, these sorts of sounds largely fade away. As Melvin Goes To Dinner is primarily driven by conversation between four people, the emphasis would be placed most heavily on its dialogue. The quality is kind of scattershot -- it's always clearly discernable, but portions do sound a bit on the muffled side, and there's more sibilance than I'm used to hearing. That's not entirely out of place for an independent film, and all in all, what's provided here is more than serviceable.
Supplements: The extras begin with a pair of audio commentaries, each focusing on a different facet of filmmaking. The first is a cast commentary, teaming writer/lead Michael Blieden, Annabelle Gurwitch, Stephanie Courtney, and Matt Price with director Bob Odenkirk. It's kind of funny to stop and think that the movie has four of these people mostly just sitting around and talking for an hour and a half, and this commentary is pretty much the same thing.
It's almost as much of a blast to sit through as the movie itself, due in large part to Gurwitch. She has the best lines in the entire track, ranting about how the cuts in the movie make her look like "a total alcoholic", how she enjoyed sleeping with oodles of people because she could really get to know them that way, and complaining about a slutty black bra, the bags under her eyes, and a blue bottle that partially obscured her face in a couple of shots. The actors talk about how they got involved in the original play and their feelings about translating it to a feature film. Blieden points out the real-life origins behind the schizophrenic babble and elements of the dinner conversation, the difference between the play and the movie both in terms of concept and presentation, and the emotional difficulty of shooting the final sequence. It's also noted that they shot sixty-five pages with a five camera setup in the space of twelve hours. Yikes.
Odenkirk and Blieden return for the second track, joined by composer Michael Penn, cinematographer Alex Vendler, and producers Naomi Odenkirk and D.J. Paul. It's a much more technical discussion, not buoyed by the same sort of energy in the other track, but it's an entirely different but fascinating look at the art of crafting a film. Penn (yes, the brother of Sean Penn, but he's an acclaimed musician in his own right) focuses on the motivation behind the choices he made scoring the movie, including manipulating certain sounds, briefly drawing from his own sizeable archive of material and repurposing it, and the contrast of sweet music with harsh emotional content. Vendler speaks about how the distinctive appearances of each of the movie's flashbacks were accomplished, and one frequent topic is the challenge of shooting on video as opposed to film. For some inexplicable reason, I'm enthralled by discussions of different formats, and hearing arguments about different depth of field, shadow detail, texture, and even the emotions conveyed in video vs. film makes me feel all warm and gooey inside. Not only was Melvin... shot on video, it was shot on PAL digital video, and they speak about the massive headaches that caused in post-production. Blieden not only wrote and starred in the movie, but he also served as editor, and he talks about the process of cutting it. The producers, of course, take note of the production schedule and focus more on the financial end of things, such as how the film was funded privately. This second commentary doesn't have as wide an appeal as the first, but viewers who have a deep interest in technical details ought to enjoy it immensely.
"The Frank International Film Festival" (16:17) is a little more overtly comedic than the feature. The dry mockumentary about an appearance at an incredibly exclusive film festival is funnier in concept than in execution. There are also nine and a half minutes of scenes from Michael Blieden's stage play Phyro-Giants!, which was the source for the film and features much of the same cast. The original screenplay is also included in PDF format on the DVD-ROM portion of the disc.
Finally, a trailer gallery includes promos for The Slaughter Rule, Swimming, Mule Skinner Blues, Searching for Paradise, The Hired Hand, The Other Side of the Bed, In This World, Dopamine, and a Sundance Film Series trailer. The clips are all fairly short, falling around a minute to a minute and a half each, with Dolby Digital 2.0 audio (192Kbps). The majority of them are letterboxed, though not presented in anamorphic widescreen. Mule Skinner Blues is the only full-frame promo, In This World and The Slaughter Rule are letterboxed to 2.35:1, and the remainder have an aspect ratio around 1.85:1.
Melvin Goes To Dinner includes a set of 4x3 animated menus with snippets from the movie running underneath, and the disc comes packaged in a keep case. An two-sided sheet plugging other Sundance Channel releases is provided, but there's no list of chapter stops for the Insert Cabal.
Conclusion: Melvin Goes To Dinner may have a different approach to humor than Odenkirk's Mr. Show, but it's every bit as sharp and funny, adding a more dramatic element into the mix as well. Very entertaining and very highly recommended.
Related Links: The official Melvin Goes To Dinner site has some notes from Odenkirk and Blieden, production stills, and links to some other reviews of the film.