Melvin Goes to Dinner

on November 14, 2003 by Ray Greene
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It's a hard thing, being a cult comedy hero. Just ask Bob Odenkirk. "Mr. Show," the brilliant satiric series he hosted with David Cross for four HBO seasons, is now a distant if treasured memory. His two pilots for that same cable network ("Life on Mars" and "The Near Future") were filmed but never broadcast. Then there's "Run Ronnie Run," a movie he, Cross and frequent collaborator Troy Miller engineered out of spare parts from a recurring (and much loved) "Mr. Show" sketch about the most arrested felon on a "Cops"-like TV show, and the Australian cameraman for whom he is the equivalent of Ahab's Moby Dick. Completed in 2002 for New Line and edited under duress without Odenkirk's or Cross' participation, "Run Ronnie Run" has, to quote the official Odenkirk/Cross website, followed "the time honored tradition of other straight-to-DVD steaming turds." They actually warn their diehard fans against the movie.

So when Odenkirk decided to direct a film of his own, it seemed safe to assume that at some level it might end up an attempt to recapture past glories. Safe to assume, and, as it turns out, dead wrong. Far from the knockabout surrealism that was the market identity of "Mr. Show," "Melvin Goes to Dinner" turns out to emphasize the other aspect of Odenkirk (and Cross's) comedy that made their work in the past so distinctive: character.

Think "My Dinner With Andre" crossed with a middle period Woody Allen film and you begin to get the idea. Melvin (Michael Blieden, also the film's screenwriter), Sarah (Annabelle Gurwitch) , Joey (Matt Price) and Alex (Stephanie Courtney) are four people having dinner together. Melvin and Joey are old friends, as are Joey and Alex, as are Alex and Sarah. The tentative foursome gabble on politely, asking the usual questions about life, aspirations, career. But gradually, as the wine flows and they begin to feel more comfortable with each other, their talk turns more and more revealing, and we see intimate glimpses of their messy and in most regards unspectacular personal lives, each of which is on the cusp of a small moment of resolution.

Even that description sounds more constructed than "Melvin Goes to Dinner" desires to be. Despite guest appearances by Cross, Odenkirk and their old pal Jack Black, "Melvin" is about as far from the "high-concept" comedy Hollywood favors as it's possible to get: no funny voices, no putdown or gross-out humor--just normal-seeming people trying to figure themselves out.

It's not a weightless film by any stretch of the imagination. There's a searing three-scene bit from "Magnolia" actress Melora Walters as an unfaithful wife who is playing around with Melvin, and, as a schizophrenic who believes he is the female creator of the physical world, Jack Black gets to indulge in the darker side of his talents. But Odenkirk's direction and Blieden's script consistently steer "Melvin" toward gentle and humane moments of revelation, which might feel incidental if they weren't delivered with so much wit and such bracing generosity.

If comedy is, as has so often been said, based on hostility, "Melvin Goes to Dinner" is an example by a master of the form that it doesn't necessarily have to be. While fans of "Mr. Show" can be forgiven for hoping that Odenkirk will again find a suitable outlet for the broader aspects of his humor, "Melvin Goes to Dinner" is a demonstration that his talents--including his talent for doing the unexpected--remain undiminished. Starring Michael Blieden, Annabelle Gurwitch, Matt Price and Stephanie Courtney. Directed by Bob Odenkirk. Written by Michael Blieden. Produced by Naomi Odenkirk, DJ Paul and Jeff Sussman. A Sundance release. Comedy. Rated R for language and sexuality, including sexual dialogue. Running time: 83 min

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