Saturday, February 8, 2014

And So it Begins...: Top 10 Reasons to Watch Dinner for Five

In the early 2000s, writer/director/actor created a television show in which he and four celebrities would talk movie shop over dinner. Dinner for Five, while so amazingly simple in concept, quickly developed a loyal following of fans eager to listen to celebs talk about their experiences with the film business.

During the show’s run from 2001-2005, I caught a few episodes here and there on IFC, but it wasn’t until a few weeks ago that I actually remembered it existed. A good friend reminded me of Dinner for Five, and after a quick Google search, I discovered that some kind soul had uploaded the entire series on YouTube. I spent the past two weeks watching the whole show, and here are 10 things that I enjoyed most about it.

(Note: You can watch all of the episodes by clicking here, but keep in kind, I have no idea how long they’ll actually be on YouTube.)

You learn a lot about how the film industry works

If you’re a complete film freak like me and love exploring how terms like two-hander, needle drops, master shots, sides, and changes apply to a movie set, the natural conversations between guests on this show will help you understand. In the early episodes, when a guest uses an obscure industry term, a title card helps explain what that term means. Unfortunately, those title cards disappear after Season 1, so you have to scramble on Google during subsequent seasons.

In addition to on-set terms, Dinner for Five offers frank insight into the money side of the business. There’s a lot of bitching and moaning about how money dominates the entirety of the film industry. Be warned: this isn’t a show that promotes the glamour of what it means to be a filmmaker. Far from it.

You learn a lot about some really great films

Watching Dinner for Five, I learned new things about A Woman Under the Influence, Deliverance, The Last Picture Show, Scorsese’s Cape Fear and MANY other notable films. If you’re a fan of film trivia, then you’ll love this show.

It’s hilarious

When the show first began, it seemed that Favreau really encouraged a humorous vibe. During Season 1, I laughed out loud several times. Vince Vaughn poking fun at Peter Falk, Kevin Pollak doing amazing impressions, Faizon Love crapping on everyone he’s ever worked with, Denis Leary being Denis Leary. As the show progressed, it became overall more serious. There are still amusing moments in every episode, but those early ones are hysterical.

You get to meet (and value) new people

I’m grossly ill informed about certain periods of American comedy. The whole Martin and Lewis/Johnny Carson eras. Favreau obviously loves this crowd, which is why Dom Deluise, for example, makes a few appearances on the show, and nails every one of them. Additionally, I loved getting to know people I really didn’t know much about, aside from how the public perceives them. Examples: Martha Plimpton, Eddie Izzard, Carrie Fisher, Ed Begley, Rob Zombie, and Henry Rollins, all offer great insights while on the show.

For better or worse, your perceptions of certain people are true

Vince Vaughn is pretty much an antagonistic asshole, Kevin Smith is an articulate know it all, Adam Goldberg behaves exactly how most all of his film characters behave, Colin Farrell is (or was) a little off, Richard Lewis is Richard Lewis, Billy Bob Thornton is Billy Bob Thornton, and so on. But also, it’s comforting to see that people like Patricia Clarkson, Lili Taylor, Dennis Farina, Laura Dern, and John Waters are genuinely as nice as they appear to be.

…while other perceptions are completely off

You know what Christian Slater, Rosie Perez, and Stephen Dorff have in common? While they all appear to have a publicly standoffish presence, in real life they’re all complete sweethearts. It was also refreshing to see how relatively normal (and incredibly humble) people like Juliette Lewis, Zooey Deschanel, Gina Gershon, and Seth Green are.

But there’s really one person in particular who deserves to dominate this section, and that is Burt Reynolds. Before watching Dinner for Five, I always perceived Reynolds to be a combative jerk. The second episode of Season 3 completely reversed my opinions on the man. He comes off as humble, grateful, hilarious, all while telling amazing story after amazing story. That episode is the only episode in the show’s history that was split into two parts, and it is very easy to determine why.

Occasionally, things get awkward

I’ve touched on some already, but yeah, Dinner for Five can get awkward as hell. Watching guests squirm uncomfortably as Faizon Love bashes Spike Lee, Ice Cube, and many others, can be painful. As is Vince Vaughn bullying Rory Cochrane about Cochrane’s troubled start in the business (from Season 2 Episode 7). You can tell Cochrane is this close to kicking Vaughn’s ass, before Brian Cox interjects and demands that Vaughn shut the hell up. It may sound funny, but it’s actually quite sad.

There’s also an interesting portion of Season 2 Episode 1 in which Jennifer Garner literally threatens to beat Kevin Smith’s ass because Smith is picking on Ben Affleck. Smith gets offended and talks back, Garner beefs up, and Affleck sits sheepishly, hoping they’ll both stop. Affleck was dating Jennifer Lopez at the time, but it really makes me wonder if something was already going on between he and Garner.

But the most painfully awkward moment of Dinner for Five is the fucking train wreck that is Season 3 Episode 11. A few highlights from that show: Amy Irving discussing the amount of sex she has with her new Brazilian boyfriend, Alan Cumming and Isaac Mizrahi weighing the pros and cons of men’s pubic hair, Favreau making everyone uncomfortable by dropping N-bombs, the topic of getting assholes spray painted is discussed, and so on. I suppose the only interesting bit of the episode is hearing Alan Cumming admit that he’s never seen Fast Times at Ridgemont High, despite the fact that Jennifer Jason Leigh is his best friend.

Because of hindsight, guests prove to be full of contradictions

At some point in everyone’s life, hindsight has bitten them in the ass. Fortunately for most of us, it isn’t caught on camera. But watching some celebrities bash certain aspects of the film business, knowing that they later embraced those exact things, is truly entertaining. Because he is the center of the show, Jon Favreau is the main victim of this. Favreau notes constantly throughout the show’s run how he’ll never conform to the “Hollywood way.” He’ll never be a blockbuster filmmaker, he’ll never do a project for the money, and on and on. Take a look at Favreau’s directing career today and tell me that’s been the case.

Another prominent example of these types of contradictions is that several guests are clearly on the cusp of making it big. They know this, and they play it up somewhat shamefully. The interesting part is that most of them didn’t really make it big, and they actually peaked at the time this show aired. I don’t want to name names, but just watch the show, and you’ll quickly see what I mean.

Apparently, everyone in Hollywood hates Inside the Actors Studio

And I mean fucking hates James Lipton’s Bravo series. Denis Leary refers to it as Inside the Actors Asshole, Favreau bashes the show regularly, pointing out how Inside the Actors Studio guests like Billy Joel have nothing whatsoever to do with the film business.

Maybe you see where I’m going here. For starters, most of the people bashing the show hadn’t been invited on Inside the Actors Studio, and a handful of them (including Leary) eventually were… even though on Dinner for Five, they said they would never go on it. It’s also funny that Favreau cries foul to certain guests on Inside the Actors Studio, when two of Dinner for Five’s final guests were skateboarder Tony Hawk and Flaming Lips member Steven Drozd. Both have had as much impact on the film business as... Billy Joel.

The annoyances on the show can be amusing (but also annoying)

You better like Jon Favreau’s career, because when you watch Dinner for Five, you’re going to hear about it constantly. Swingers (which Favreau, more or less, mentions in every episode), Rudy (Favreau’s first film role), Rocky Marciano (the not-very-good TV movie starring Favreau), and the one episode of The Sopranos where Favreau played himself, are all mentioned regularly. Problem is, Favreau has a tendency to come off as elitist about his contribution to the movie industry. As if his work with Swingers was the greatest thing to happen to independent film since, well, ever.

If it’s any consolation, Favreau is fully aware of how he’s perceived, noting a few times that he comes off as an asshole on his own show, but there’s nothing he can do about it. (It’s also damn funny to see Kevin Smith making fun of Favreau for this exact thing in Season 4 Episode 9, which was hosted by Smith in Favreau’s absence.)

Aside from Favreau, I should warn you that, occasionally, the guests on Dinner for Five slip into that Oh my God, it’s sooo hard being famous banter. I actually don’t have a problem with this, because I do think it’s damn hard to live in the public eye like they do. But if you’re the type of person who doesn’t like to listen to celebrities bitch about how much their life and fame and fortune sucks, then certain episodes of Dinner for Five are going to be tough for you.

Final Thoughts

I didn’t want to end this post on a negative note because honestly, Dinner for Five is a fantastic show. It truly is a must for even the most remote fans of American cinema. I learned so much from watching the show, about the films and the people who made them. I guarantee it’ll be worth your time, despite its few hiccups. Remember: you can watch all of the shows here, but I have no idea how long they’ll actually be posted on YouTube. Also note that some of the later episodes are missing bits here and there, but hey, it’s always better to have something than nothing.

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