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Worth A Look: 28.95%
Average: 0%
Pretty Bad: 0%
Total Crap: 15.79%

3 reviews, 20 user ratings

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Melvin Goes to Dinner
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by Erik Childress

"With Friends Like These, Who Needs Andre?"
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2003 SOUTH BY SOUTHWEST FILM FESTIVAL: Using the term staginess to describe any theatrical translation is a simple way to find fault with a dialogue you just didn’t like. After all, it’s a damn play. How much do you want it “opened up?” How much does it need to be opened up? Maybe your idea of cinema dictates the 1950s mentality of expanding the square home tube into a rectangular monstrosity, but shouldn’t that be reserved for epics about gladiators and space exploration. The human mind and the relationships it involves itself in are far more intimate subjects that shouldn’t be ashamed of a singular setting. As long as the people and the conversations are interesting, how much room do you really need to eavesdrop?

Based on a play by Michael Blieden, the film version begins with a series of flashbacks and flashforwards depicting the few backstories and eventual coincidence of four old-and-new friends meeting for dinner. Blieden plays Melvin, stuck working for his understanding sister (Maura Tierney) and in a dead-end relationship with a “malignant poison” (Melora Walters). One day he misdials and gets his old friend, Joey (Matt Price) on the phone. He’s happy to hear from him for the first time in four months and invites him to dinner. Unexpectedly arriving on the scene are Joey’s business school pal, Alex (Stephanie Courtney) and the old friend she just bumped into on the street, Sarah (Annabelle Gurwitch). Get used to the coincidence factor fast as it becomes an integral part of the story’s surprises and may be off-putting to many during a pair of late revelations.

Once the various players have been introduced and we’re caught up in the timeline, we’re able to settle in comfortably with the four of them as they discuss life, the afterlife, infidelity, sex and religion. The kind of checklist that playwrights and dinner guests of Andre are committed to follow through on when constructing a conversation piece. Melvin admits he’s been cutting himself off from the world. Sarah discusses the various men she keeps at arms-length. Alex reveals her belief in spirits that walk among us. Joey proudly cuts down spirituality on the religious side and how often he thinks about having an affair during his marriage of two years.

These are discussions all twenty-and-thirtysomethings have had at some point in their lives. Maybe not all in one evening, but listening to these four will certainly bring up some déjà vu and potentially spark a future conversation, even as soon as you leave the theater. Say, maybe for dinner. Timing, not location is the key to a story like this. The actors must develop a natural rapport with each almost instantly. We have to believe there’s a history between them, that they’re smart and that they don’t miss a beat. Pregnant pauses is one thing. Dead air looks like someone waiting for a line reading. None of the actors here fail to fulfill the requirements.

Sticking four characters into a room together can turn into a joke right out of Screenwriting 101; the tough guy; the sensitive guy; the shy, innocent woman and the slut. That’s not the case here. No one here makes a broad characterization of themselves by sticking to and believing only what comes out of their own mouths. They listen to each other, debate and come to understandings. There are no right and wrongs, no black and whites, just four people who have a few answers and aren’t looking for new ones in the course of a single evening, but let down their guards for the possibility to learn them. Blieden, Price, Courtney and Gurwitch are uniformly excellent in this regard.

If I’ve made Melvin Goes to Dinner sound like a dry lecture between a bunch of confused, spoiled yuppies, then I apologize for not hinting at just how funny this film is. Helmed by the great Bob Odenkirk (in his directorial debut), the humor may not be as uniquely surreal as his HBO series, Mr. Show (with David Cross who makes a funny cameo) but has the universal truths of the comedy inherent in our everyday lives. Jack Black (Shallow Hal) is brought in for a hilarious flashback as a medical patient who believes God is just a front for the real creator of the universe – himself. But the characters are so interesting in and of themselves, that we could have just listened to Melvin tell the story himself without the visual representation and we would have been attentive.

The topic of schizophrenia is brought up more than once in the film. Not in the John Nash/Dennis Clegg tragic kind of way, but as an allegory of how we all deal with the ins-and-outs of everyday traumas. We make ourselves believe one reality while another, more real one, passes us by as we try to forget it entirely. Don’t brand a film stagy when all you really want to say is that you don’t like it. Use your schizophrenic powers for something more and ignore the word stagy in its entirety. If you don’t or you listen to those who do, you’re going to miss a hilarious, beguiling conversation amongst a group of people that you would love to label as “old friends.”

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originally posted: 03/13/03 19:22:42
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2003 SXSW Film Festival. For more in the 2003 South By Southwest Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2003 Slamdance Film Festival. For more in the 2003 Slamdance Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

4/20/07 Zack I liked it 4 stars
2/01/05 Gladys Paradowski Intriquing. Made me do a self-analysis. 4 stars
7/12/04 Michael I wish there were more movies like this. Odenkirk's finest work to date 5 stars
1/24/04 giselle i liked it 4 stars
1/03/04 Edward B. An almost perfect film 5 stars
1/02/04 Tom Liked it 5 stars
12/31/03 Rich Sauer Really a brilliant movie 5 stars
12/22/03 stanley j. Absolutely hilarious! An utter riot! We all know people like these characters. 5 stars
11/29/03 Josh Littlefield a startlingly refreshing film...truly original with an outstanding ending 5 stars
11/20/03 Diorella Melvin Goes to Dinner is a great movie...... 5 stars
7/15/03 Tracy naturally good, real, & funny 5 stars
6/10/03 esther unexpected and really funny 5 stars
4/08/03 Stephanie Halverson Blindsides you with funny 5 stars
3/21/03 samuel good film 4 stars
3/17/03 Josh About as real and funny as it gets-expertly acted. 5 stars
3/16/03 Jason A fantastic debut film. 5 stars
1/30/03 dillman hilarious! totally natural and unexpected laughs! 5 stars
1/25/03 Mr Math Very good flick from Slamdance. 4 stars
1/25/03 Todd Lippiatt Fun, funny and smart. A solid indie. 5 stars
1/24/03 Josh Meadows Better than 99.9% of the shit at Sundance. 5 stars
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