The 2003 independent comedy Melvin Goes to Dinner began life as a stage play, and it shows. Essentially a movie about four friends/acquaintances getting together for dinner, Melvin's conversational feel and static location is well-suited for the stage. It's impressive, then, that it makes such a good movie.
The play, called Phyro-Giants!, was written by Melvin star Michael Blieden, who also adapted the screenplay for the film. He stars as the titular Melvin, a guy who's a little lost in his life (he's dating a married woman), who meets up for dinner with a friend (played by Matt Price) and winds up with two others, played by Annabelle Gurwitch and Groundlings member Stephanie Courtney. Over the course of the meal, the four new friends discuss everything from work to sex, telling stories (which the movie cuts away to, opening it up from the single location) and slowly revealing hidden connections among all of them.
The movie also features appearances from David Cross, Jack Black, Laura Kightlinger, Jenna Fischer (The Promotion) and SNL's Fred Armisen. Also look closely for cameos by Kristen Wiig and Christian Finnegan as extras.
The movie was directed by Bob Odenkirk, a sketch comedy veteran and co-creator of the great Mr. Show with Bob and David on HBO. Many of the film's flashback and asides are broken up into little vignettes -- sketches, if you will -- that help play to Odenkirk's strengths. Plus, he's always able to find the jokes in every scene and let them play for maximum impact; for a movie about four people talking, there are some really big laughs.
But what's most surprising is Odenkirk's skill in directing actors. Of course it helps that the four actors in the ensemble had been performing these roles on stage since 2001, making them incredibly comfortable in their characters' skins and their interactions seem totally natural. But Odenkirk keeps things intimate, forcing the actors to readjust their stage performances for the camera -- he's at home with the cast as they are with each other.
Everything about Melvin Goes to Dinner suggested that Odenkirk would be a comedy director to watch (actually, there's enough there to suggest he could direct effective dramas, too). That makes it especially sad that his two follow-up directorial efforts were Let's Go to Prison (2006) and The Brothers Solomon (2007), two largely unfunny films done in even more so by clumsy, leaden direction -- neither film demonstrates any of the nuance or skill that Odenkirk showed in his first effort. Here's hoping he someday gets away from that style of broad comedy and comes back to small, independent gems like Melvin Goes to Dinner.
And, come to think of it, here's hoping that Blieden and company elect to someday revisit these characters either on stage or on film. Like Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, I think Melvin is well-suited for a "where are they now?" follow-up film. I'd gladly spend another Dinner with these four.
Original Release Date: December 4, 2003