Order Up! Melvin Goes to Dinner Is Back on the Menu

While gearing up for the fourth and final season of Mr. Show with Bob and David on HBO, co-creators Bob Odenkirk and David Cross wanted to get some directing experience, so each chose a sketch to call the shots for. Cross picked “Goodbye,” a self-contained short about the increasingly awkward partings of two friends who keep bumping into each other one night. Odenkirk opted for something more ambitious, a pastiche built around an unmentionable part of the human anatomy that took inspiration from The People vs. Larry Flynt and parodied the stylistic excesses of Boogie Nights – two films about different strata of the porn industry that were fresh in the public’s mind in 1998.

Next for the duo was Run Ronnie Run, a comedy charting the misadventures of two of Mr. Show’s recurring characters that was an unhappy experience for Odenkirk and Cross since they were barred from the editing room by director Troy Miller, who had worked amicably with them on the show. By the time Ronnie had its belated premiere at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival, it was in a form nobody was particularly happy with, least of all its stars. One year later, Odenkirk was back in Park City – at Slamdance this time – with his directorial debut, a low-budget indie based on a play he saw during its five-month run in Los Angeles in 2001. The play was Phyro-Giants! by Michael Blieden, but in the course of adapting it for the screen, it was renamed the more sensible Melvin Goes to Dinner.

Along with Blieden, who plays the title character, a chronically unmotivated government employee in a go-nowhere relationship with a married woman, Odenkirk kept the main cast of the stage production intact. Matt Price is Melvin’s friend Joey (who extends the dinner invite), Stephanie Courtney is Alex (who knows Joey from business school), and Annabelle Gurwitch is Alex’s friend Sarah (who gets roped into joining the party). Odenkirk took full advantage of their familiarity with the material and each other, shooting the bulk of the film in two nights with five digital cameras to catch all of the action and the reaction shots simultaneously.

Blieden and Odenkirk also opened up the play, creating scenes and flashbacks out of moments previously only described in the dialogue. This opened the door to cameos by several Mr. Show alumni (and a pre-SNL Fred Armisen), as well as meatier roles for a few ringers. Cross came on board as the leader of a self-help seminar Joey was once tricked into attending, Maura Tierney was tapped to play Melvin’s disapproving sister, and Melora Walters appeared unbilled as the married woman he’s sneaking around with. Also in the uncredited column is Jack Black, whose “fame surpassed anyone else in the picture at this point,” as Odenkirk wrote in his memoir, “so this was a great favor.” Black’s role as a persistent mental patient is also pivotal since one of his delusions gave the play its title.

Mental health (or the lack of it) is but one of the subjects broached during the quartet’s wide-ranging conversation, which lasts so long they essentially close the restaurant down. The others include ghosts (brought up in the in medias res opening), religion, infidelity, pornography, and the hidden connection between two characters who supposedly just met that night. “I’m sort of like going back and putting the whole evening together in my mind,” Melvin says after the bombshell is dropped. That’s also an accurate reaction to the film, which jumps around enough that it’s necessary for viewers to do the same.

In spite of its failure to get into Sundance, and the sound problems that plagued its Slamdance debut (an unfortunate technological gaffe for such a dialogue-heavy film), Melvin Goes to Dinner eventually found its way to the Sundance Channel and a DVD release through its Home Entertainment division. Its reemergence on the Criterion Channel two decades later is cause for celebration, however, since it looks (and sounds) as good as it ever will. While it lacks the polish of a classically shot film like Louis Malle’s My Dinner with Andre (a clear antecedent), Melvin makes up for that with its unbridled exuberance and the committed performances of its leads, all of whom seem like real people in a way many movie characters (especially ones in quirky indies) do not. It’s easy to see why Odenkirk thought their stories would translate from the stage to the screen.

In the years that followed, Odenkirk tried the Hollywood route, taking the reins of two studio comedies: Let’s Go to Prison for Universal and The Brothers Solomon for TriStar. Neither did well enough to make him a bankable director, however, so Odenkirk found himself back in front of the camera, taking a recurring role on a basic-cable drama (Breaking Bad), headlining its spinoff (Better Call Saul), doing a season of another prestige show (Fargo), making a left-field cameo in a Best Picture nominee (Greta Gerwig’s Little Women), and taking the starring role in an action film (Nobody). Even if Odenkirk has given up his directing ambitions (“I am happy to fail again at directing features, but only with something I love and believe in completely, so, maybe never,” he wrote in 2022’s Comedy Comedy Comedy Drama), however you slice it, that’s a better third act than just about anyone in the business could ever hope for.

“Melvin Goes to Dinner” is streaming on the Criterion Channel as one of its Rediscoveries and Restorations.

Craig J. Clark watches a lot of movies. He started watching them in New Jersey, where he was born and raised, and has continued to watch them in Bloomington, Indiana, where he moved in 2007. In addition to his writing for Crooked Marquee, Craig also contributes the monthly Full Moon Features column to Werewolf News. He is not a werewolf himself (or so he says).

Back to top