"Art films" aren't really Hollywood's specialty. But it's even rarer for a comedian to direct one. Take Melvin Goes to Dinner. Written by Michael Blieden (formerly of The Daily Show) and directed by Bob Odenkirk (of Mr. Show fame), this story can be described as My Dinner with Andre, Get Out Your Handkerchiefsand Waking Life meets Blake Edwards's The Party. Knowing his script would inevitably be compared to Andre, the legendary dinner conversation movie, Blieden elected not to see it until sometime after production. "Now I do want to see it," says Blieden. "I'm told there are comparisons between the two, but in general [Melvin] is more fun to watch."
In the film, Melvin and his friend Joey meet two women, Alex and Sarah, for dinner. The established relationships between the four diners are ambiguous. The near anonymity of the setting creates an environment in which each feels comfortable enough to reveal some dark secrets.
Rather than lingering around the dinner table, the film recreates some of the juicier bits of table talk in animated flashback sequences. Here, Odenkirk takes advantage of his previous working relationships by reuniting with Mr. Show partners David Cross and Jack Black.
The film reflects the darker side of humanity. "We commit indiscretions in our lives and we do things that we are not proud of," says Blieden. "We commit ourselves to people who are unavailable to us, who -- in subtle ways -- abuse us. And for the most part we're not happy about those things. When asked to explain the film in a nutshell, Odenkirk speaks thoughtfully and methodically. "It's about a group of people who are experiencing a confrontation with themselves all at the same time." He pauses, then chides himself. "Boy, that doesn't sound like a simple description."
During dinner, the four reveal one dirty secret after another. "Like if you were sitting at the next table," says Odenkirk of the viewer's experience. "It's eavesdropping."
Employed by his sister, aimless Melvin (played by Blieden) is confident he can't lose his job. He has an affair, wastes his time, gets high and masturbates to Internet porn. Joey (Matt Price) is a businessman who's been married for two years. He's been cheating on his wife, including a ménage-à-trois with two stewardesses on a business trip to Houston. At one point in his life, just to pick up a woman he fancies, he chooses to attend an EST-like cult meeting (whose leader is played by David Cross). Alex (Stephanie Courtney) is sobering up from about ten years of being drunk and stoned. She reveals how she killed someone, which kicked off her partying and sense of wild abandon. Sarah (Annabelle Gurwitch) is along for the ride, having just bumped into old friend Alex on the street.
At the other end of all this darkness and coincidence is an honest comedy, the kind we seldom find in American moviemaking. "It's sort of like I made a foreign film," says Odenkirk. "I can't really compare it to any American movies. It's like a French movie in that it deals with mature subject matter in a casual way and yet everybody speaks English; you don't have to read a thing."