By René Tony Donnes | February 15, 2004

I am often amazed by how poor movie dialogue is. Listen carefully next time you watch a movie, perhaps even one of your favorites, and you’ll notice two things: 1) people don’t really talk like that, and 2) the dialog itself is usually subordinate to the plot, meaning that the dialogue is used to transmit the plot. A good movie, on the other hand, will use dialog to define and build characters.

Because dialogue usually takes a back seat to plot, movie buffs get excited when a movie with good dialogue comes around. Case in point: Say what you will about “Pulp Fiction”—that the movie is overrated, or that you’re just sick and tired of hearing how “influential” it was—but for a time, Quentin Tarantino got a lot of people excited about dialogue.

A young screenwriter by the name of Michael Blieden has brought the art of dialogue back to the fore with his movie “Melvin Goes to Dinner.” Not scheduled for nationwide theatrical release, Melvin made the rounds at various film festivals last year, to the acclaim of critics, and was released on DVD in December 2003 by Sundance.

The movie is about four young professionals, who, through a series of coincidences, meet one evening for dinner. The movie is set primarily in the restaurant where the dinner takes place, with occasional flashbacks. Through the course of the conversation we learn about the characters themselves, the connections they have with each other, and come to realize that in some ways, this get together many not have been so “coincidental” after all.

A movie about people having dinner together? Movie fans will at once think of “My Dinner with André” (1981), a movie about two men, longtime friends, who meet one night for dinner and just talk—but the similarity with Melvin ends with the idea of “dinner conversation as movie.” “André” was about two middle-aged men discussing the world: politics, history, and philosophy. Melvin is more about the personal, the intimate, and the psychological. If “André” was a conversation you could have had with one of your college professors, then “Melvin” is more like the conversations you had with your most intimate college friends. “André” is the yang to “Melvin’s” yin.

Michael Blieden has done a wonderful job writing the screenplay. Actually written over the course of a couple of years as a play, he later adapted his play into a movie at the request of director Bob Odenkirk (Mr. Show). Blieden’s script works so well because he first and foremost has written interesting characters who we come to care about over time, who open up to each other as they open themselves up to us.

Furthermore, Blieden does not have his characters shy away from topics. Characters discuss sex, logic, (in)fidelity, religious views, and their own individual neuroses. He trusts his audience to want to go along with what these characters say. Most impressive is the way Blieden has written the female roles of Sarah (Annabelle Gurwitch) and Alex (Stephanie Courtney) which are nothing short of subtle and nuanced, and the exquisite performances by both actresses make those characters come alive.

“Melvin” has a surprising amount of talent for a small, independent movie. The movie is directed by Bob Odenkirk, who has acquired somewhat of a cult following, and is perhaps most well knows for his mid-nineties HBO show, “Mr. Show.” Annabelle Gurwitch (from TBS’s “Dinner and a Movie”) acts in one of the lead roles. Jack Black, who goes uncredited, plays a schizophrenic patient in a hospital emergency room. Two of “Saturday Night Live” alums make cameos: Jerry Minor and Fred Armisen. Michael Penn scored the album, and Adrian Tomine from the “New Yorker” designed and drew the movie poster.

“Melvin” was released on DVD December 16, 2003 by Sundance, the joint venture between Robert Redford and Showtime Entertainment. The DVD contains a number of extras, which include: the full screenplay as a Portable Document File (PDF), and a comic short performed by Michael Blieden, Bob Odenkirk, Fred Armisen, and DJ Paul. While the DVD has English closed captioning, there are no foreign language subtitles.
The highlight of the extras, however, are the two audio tracks, which are not to be missed for anyone interested in acting or cinematography. The first track is with the cast, guided by director Odenkirk, discussing the movie from the point of view of the actors: what went well, what didn’t work, etc. I laughed when I heard Annabelle Gurwitch complain about the color of the bra she was wearing in the movie. The second track is Odenkirk and Blieden with the producers and cinematographer talking about the movie from a more technical point of view.

Blieden told me recently that sales of “Melvin” have been good. Sundance originally wanted to show the movie this month on the Sundance Channel, but because of brisk sales, pushed off its airdate to May.

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