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Melvin Goes to Dinner

Everyone's been to one of those dinners where the wine flows like conversation and the conversation flows like wine — easily and intoxicatingly, with each anecdote inspiring another until hours have passed and food is the last thing on anyone's mind. That's the kind of experience at the heart of Melvin Goes to Dinner (2003), director Bob Odenkirk's revelatory character study about four sort-of-strangers thrown together for a very memorable meal: Freed by their relative anonymity, the dinner companions bare their souls. Screenwriter Michael Blieden (who also wrote the play the movie is based on) stars as Melvin, a thirtyish shlub who is bored in his city-planning job and lives for his furtive assignations with his girlfriend (Melora Walters). A cell-phone misdial puts Melvin in touch with old friend Joey (Matt Price), who sets up a spontaneous dinner date; they're joined by Joey's business-school buddy Alex (Stephanie Courtney) and her old friend Sarah (Annabelle Gurwitch). The foursome's dinner conversation — which covers everything from ghosts and religion to porn and infidelity — is what drives the movie, but Odenkirk and Blieden take occasional detours in the form of flashbacks and flash-forwards, fleshing out their characters with a bit of backstory and context. And despite a few slightly contrived plot-twists, what they end up with really works. The four central characters are rich and detailed, and the stars play them very naturally. They're aided by Blieden's smart, fast-paced script, which only gets expository at the right times; the cadences of the evening's discourse sound very real. A relatively star-studded (for the indie world, anyway) supporting cast rounds things out nicely — look for Odenkirk's "Mr. Show" partner David Cross as a self-help guru, Jack Black as an earnest mental patient, and "ER"'s Maura Tierney as Melvin's protective older sister (not to mention "Saturday Night Live"'s Fred Armisen and former "Daily Show" correspondent/SNL regular Laura Kightlinger in bit parts). Thanks to the folks involved in making it, Melvin is bound to find the right kind of audience; it may be a small movie, but it's the kind of small movie that feels bigger the more you think about it. And now, on to dessert: Showtime's Melvin DVD offers plenty of goodies for indie film lovers (and Odenkirk fans in particular). The highlight of the disc is unquestionably the director's new short film "The Frank International Film Festival," a funny, 16-minute mockumentary about the Melvin team's trip to a rather obscure festival; Armisen co-stars. Other extras include nine minutes' worth of scenes from the original play, a DVD-ROM-accessible copy of the script, promo trailers, and two full-length commentaries — one with Odenkirk and the principal cast, the other with Odenkirk, Blieden, and several crew members. The letterboxed widescreen transfer (1.85:1) is clean, and the English 2.0 Dolby Surround audio is clear. Closed-captioning, keep-case.
—Betsy Bozdech

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