|by Matt Mulcahey
Making people laugh is what Bob Odenkirk does.
It always has been, from producing his own radio comedy program in college to writing for Saturday Night Live and The Ben Stiller Show to serving as one of the creative forces behind the outlandish, profane and topical HBO sketch comedy Mr. Show.
But in directing his first feature film, Odenkirk discovered a creative fulfillment that extended beyond laughter.
“The awards of Mr. Show and a lot of the comedy I do are the laughs,” Odenkirk said. “With Melvin Goes to Dinner the awards are not as obvious, but I think they’re in a lot of ways stronger than the broad comedy pieces I’ve done and I’m really proud of the movie. One thing I learned is that it’s worth it to do something that has potentially greater meaning than a laugh.”
Which isn’t to say Melvin Goes to Dinner isn’t sometimes funny, and it certainly has its share of comedic moments, but the humor is based more on keenly observed human truths than the absurd outrageousness of Mr. Show.
Melvin Goes to Dinner is a movie about the sometimes far-reaching ramifications of a conversation and the freeing power of confession as an evening of dinner chat by a quartet of LA residents’ snowballs from off the cuff ramblings on religion, anal sex and the existence of ghosts to the deep dark secrets of each participant.
The project first came to Odenkirk’s attention through his talent manager wife, Naomi, who wouldn’t stop gushing about Phyro-Giants, a play that one of her client’s (Stephanie Coutrney, who plays Alex) was starring in.
“My wife went to see the play and said it was really great, funny, sad, entertaining and amazing, and I said I don’t believe you. Because most plays suck. Most small plays in New York or L.A. that are by friends or people you know are terrible. Going to one of them is like having someone in the room with you who will not stop embarrassing themselves for hours,” Odenkirk said.
But, much to Odenkirk’s surprise, the play didn’t suck and, after several viewings convinced him that the material’s quality wasn’t an aberration, he began talking to the author (Michael Bleiden, who also plays Melvin) about the possibility of turning it into a film.
“One of our goals right away was ‘How do we keep the cast from the play together?’ They’d done it probably 40 or 50 times in the theater and they were just perfect for their roles,” Odenkirk said. “Of course one of the goals for any production is to have names, but we sacrificed that for quality. So we said ‘We’ve got these cameos and they’re smaller roles so let’s try to use that to get some names to attract distributors.”
Among the names that the project landed where Jack Black as a mental patient, Maura Tierney as Melvin’s sister, Melora Walters as Mevin’s married lover and Odenkirk’s Mr. Show partner David Cross as a self-help guru.
“I think that when you have a good script you can get talented people. I didn’t know Melora Walters. She wasn’t an old friend or anything, she just did the movie because she liked the script,” Odenkirk said.
Though the dinner talk has the feel of spontaneity, with overlapping dialogue and seemingly ad-libbed quips, even the smallest line was scripted.
“I would subscribe that to the cast’s talent and the fact that most films aren’t very well rehearsed. How many times do you have 66 pages that are rehearsed 100 times with the main cast? You don’t get to do it, it doesn’t exist. That’s the reason the dialogue came off as so real,” Odenkirk said.
“The only thing I brought into the movie as far as the writing goes was, when we talked about turning it into a screenplay, that we take the Melvin character and give him some sense of a journey in the film.”
With a book-ended subplot added to the highly autobiographical Melvin, Bleiden and Odenkirk approached the character from different vantage points.
“Michael is very sympathetic to his character and I’m not all that sympathetic. I don’t think the characters are particularly sweet. I don't think they're terrible people, but I think they’re fucked up and I think they’re living lies,” Odenkirk said.
“Michael’s character is living off of very questionable logic. He’s going out with a married women and trying to avoid facing any realities in his life. He’s got a job where he’s coddled by his sister, who’s his boss, and he’s doing everything he can to avoid facing the reality that this relationship has no chance in hell. He’s just not standing up for anything.”
While Melvin’s journey does conclude with an something of an epiphany, Odenkirk felt it important not to make that realization transparently linked to the evening’s events.
“It’s not so much of a Hollywood movie where someone goes ‘I had this conversation and it convinced me I’ve got to change.’ Its very subconscious, the awareness Melvin comes to that he’s got to change,” Odenkirk said.
“The thing I like about the ending is that I think it’s a very true sort of growth of a character. At the end, after he’s revealed himself and seen other people reveal themselves, he’s sitting in the cab of his truck with the woman he’s cheating with and he says ‘Can’t we just do the good part?’ Can’t we just fuck and smile at each other and have a laugh and that be the end of it? And the answer is no, you can’t just have the good part of anything. You have to have the whole thing.”
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originally posted: 04/01/03 04:41:00
last updated: 01/01/04 14:39:30