DVD Review Of
Melvin Goes To Dinner
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 11/23/06
On the down side is the fact that the 2003 film Melvin Goes To Dinner, directed by first timer Bob Odenkirk, is a watered down yuppy version of the great 1981 Louis Malle film My Dinner With Andre. On the up side is that if you are going to imitate something, at least choose something great, for the imitation, while not great, is likely to be good, which My Dinner With Melvin is. It was written by actor/playwright Michael Blieden, adapted from his play Phyro-Giants, and had a no name cast, as opposed to 2001’s similarly themed HBO film Dinner With Friends, which starred Dennis Quaid, Toni Collette, Andie McDowell, and Greg Kinnear.
The film follows four not so close acquaintances, who meet at a local bistro and discuss everything from belief in ghosts to infidelity. The problem is that, unlike Andre, which simply follows the conversation of two intelligent men, broken only by the serving of food, Melvin tries to go back and forth in time, and then follows Melvin after the dinner, to what is a revelatory moment in his life. The conversation between the four yuppies is simply not at the intellectual level of Andre, nor are the several soap operatic revelations- of an affair between two of the participants and the accidental killing of someone by another participant. Still, a better script would have turned these weaknesses into an advantage, and opened up new avenues for filmic exploration. This film does not. It’s as if there was no belief by Blieden nor Odenkirk that ideas themselves could carry the whole film, and that’s a shame, because those moments that are just purely conversational are easily the strongest moments in the film. Whereas Andre was a highly experimental film, in every sense of the word, Melvin has to resort to standard Lowest Common Denominator dramatic techniques to try to sustain the interest of the least intelligent viewers, rather than raise the bar from where Andre set it.
This is partly the fault of the writer, Blieden, and partly Odenkirk’s fault, because any filmmaker owes far more to his audience than to his source material. In one of the DVD commentaries, with the cast members, Odenkirk and Blieden reveal that they added the backstories of the characters for the film, and this was absent from the original play. Bad move, because while this allows for cameos by Jack Black (unbilled) and Melora Walters (two ‘name’ actors), it also removes the revelatory power of both words and actors. Each break away breaks the flow of the film and conversation, just as it’s about to reach a peak. This is also a shame, since the acting is top notch, between the four main characters, who are obviously used to each other from their stage performances, thus very natural in their roles and banter: Melvin (Blieden), Matt Price (Joey), Alex (Stephanie Courtney), and Sarah (Annabelle Gurwitch).
Since each of the characters is not a regular close friend of the others, this allows them to skip over small talk, and speak of ‘big issues’ very naturally. After all, if you see someone rarely, do you really want to waste time asking how their job is going? Thus, the natural ease the actors have with each other is matched by the naturalistic exploration of their belief systems. This only heightens the disappointment that comes when each character reveals their ‘secret’. Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory, by contrast, were just two arts guys, with differing lives and viewpoints, who were aroused by each others’ views. That film ends with a sense that the two characters, especially Wally, have made a turn in their lives. The characters in Melvin, although coming close to depth, all seem to be easily relapsing back into their shallow lives. Melvin might be the lone exception.
That’s because the film really does chicken out of putting its characters in emotional deep water. Yes, admissions of fetishes and infidelities can titillate, but given that this was filmed only a year and a half after 9/11 you’d think there might be a touch of political dischord thrown in. They argue a bit over religion, but no character seems willing to really stand up for anything. They are all, in that sense, preening wimps.
As for the DVD features, there is a short parody film where the main characters and filmmakers go to a film festival run by a single person for himself, the Frank International Film Festival. It stars Mike White of Chuck And Buck, and makes some funny points. The commentaries are first rate, as neither the one with the cast, nor that with the crew, gets too fellatric nor over the top. Some interesting information, like the film’s necessitating the backgrounding of the characters, is interesting, since it runs counter to the usual simplification process films put adapted works through. There is also the screenplay available, and scenes from the play, as well as a few trailers.
Still, I only wish there were deeper characters. Whereas Shawn and Gregory discourse on life and determinism, the four yuppies talk of things like ghosts with all the depth that a post-Angels In America America can muster, and then are amazed at each others’ supposed depth, and how stimulating their conversation is. And when I reference Angels In America it’s not a mere throwaway diss. There’s a reason for the connection. Call it Post-Intellectualism. Call it, ‘Show, don’t tell.’ Call it a nice try that settles for copouts. There are too many synchronicities and pallid contrivances that line up to get these four people together in the first place, and then reveal so much about themselves. Yet, it succeeds just enough that I can recommend this noble attempt, especially since the film’s start and end are strong- and I mean literally the first and last few seconds of each. You may not wish you were able to join in the conversation, as you did with My Dinner With Andre, but it’s still a few notches above anything you’ll overhear in a real restaurant. For that, I recommend this DVD.
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