Fifteen years before Sacha Gervasi chronicled the rise and fall of the Canadian heavy metal trio Anvil, he had a close encounter with another performer, one who had also slipped off the showbiz Scoville scale and into the realm of the cooled-off has-been. Gervasi was a journalist at the time, and the fallen star was Hervé Villechaize, known to millions as Tattoo on Fantasy Island.
Their five days’ worth of interviews in the summer of 1993, just a few days before the actor’s suicide, have been fictionalized and condensed into a roving, nightlong conversation for My Dinner With Hervé. It’s a passion project for both the writer-director and Peter Dinklage, who brings comic gusto, blowhard bluster and heartbreaking self-awareness to his portrayal of Villechaize — not to mention the distinctly nasal voice and thick Gallic accent. In this story of one man’s final reckoning as life-changing event for a young reporter, he has a fine foil in Jamie Dornan, who subtly finds the edge in what might have been a flavorless straight-man role.
Leading an ace cast in a hit-and-miss movie, Dinklage is a blast.
The movie heightens the push-pull between the two men, each in his own way desperate. But it also formularizes the story into standard biopic territory and, like most all-nighters, it grows hazy and repetitive in the middle. Its final lessons in self-knowledge are neat enough that they wouldn’t be out of place on an episode of Fantasy Island. To Gervasi’s credit, though, he also embraces the inherent camp and schmaltz of a show that turned pure kitsch into primetime gold.
When Danny Tate (Dornan) meets Villechaize in Los Angeles, it’s the actor’s first interview in a decade, and he’s determined to make the most of it, even if that means brandishing a knife and tracking down the journo at his hotel hours after they’ve parted. Tate, for his part, is brandishing a one-month chip marking his newfound sobriety. Back on the job at glossy London magazine after a stint in rehab, he’s in no position to turn down the assignment: To commemorate the 20th anniversary of The Man With the Golden Gun, the Bond movie that put Villechaize on the map, Tate’s editor (a perfectly caustic Harriet Walter) wants a “funny little 500-word story” on “the most famous dwarf in the world.”
It’s an add-on to the real purpose of his trip to L.A., a profile of Gore Vidal (a perfectly imperious Michael Elwyn). Over Tate’s objections, the magazine insists that the Vidal piece be a hatchet job. Even so, he knows it’s a career-saving opportunity that he can’t pass up — and it’s one that he promptly blows.
Dornan captures the anxiety and flailing beneath Tate’s not-quite-polished surface. His wife (Oona Chaplin) has cut him off, he’s essentially reduced to groveling at work, and staying clean and sober is a precarious affair, especially with the well-stocked minibar in his hotel room. Villechaize, beneath his ostentatious slurping of oysters, his flourished (and declined) credit card and his self-mythologizing hyperbole — he calls the Fantasy Island pairing of him and Ricardo Montalban “one of the greatest onscreen partnerships of all time” — reads Tate like a book (or a screenplay logline).
Knowing that he’s being treated dismissively, the actor demands to be heard out, on his terms. He taunts the journalist relentlessly and perceptively, hitting every sore nerve. Swooping Tate up into a white stretch limo, he promises the real story beyond the well-worn PR shtick, along with a late-night tour of “my L.A.” First stop, a strip club.
The convo and the mutual antagonism play out over lap dances and midnight hot dogs at Pink’s, with Villechaize’s story unfolding via vivid flashbacks. It’s an illuminating look behind the pop-culture novelty of his Hollywood career, beginning with his birth in war-torn Paris and his physician father’s obsession with finding an experimental cure for the boy’s rare form of dwarfism. Perhaps most illuminating is Hervé’s youthful rebellion and determination: his success as a painter, complete with Parisian garret and affairs with his models, and his eventual departure for New York — “where the freaks go,” and where he learns English from TV — before heading to the West Coast to stake his claim to Hollywood immortality.
As good as Dinklage and Dornan (who gets to speak in his native Irish lilt) are, the clashing back-and-forth — between present and past, and between the two lead characters — begins to feel routine and mechanical. Villechaize and Tate’s repeated standoffs, and the “stop this limo, I’m getting out” motif grow wearying.
But when it zeros in on the absurdity of showbiz self-seriousness, the movie is often delightful. There’s Villechaize’s hilarious delivery of Macbeth‘s most famous speech, and the no less hilarious reaction of the William Morris agent (David Strathairn) who hears it at knifepoint. There’s the fistfight with Billy Barty (Mark Povinelli), the image-conscious chairman of Little People of America, offended by Villechaize’s hard-partying, headline-grabbing lifestyle. And there’s the professional jealousy and passive-aggressive pissing matches between him and Montalban (Andy Garcia, in astutely deadpan high dudgeon); the exasperation of the show’s high-powered producer, Aaron Spelling (Wallace Langham); the fame-hungry hangers-on; and the rays of true kindness from Villechaize’s ultra-supportive dresser and eventual girlfriend, Kathy (a shimmering Mireille Enos in an underdeveloped role).
At the helm for the fourth time, Gervasi delivers a far more satisfying feature than either of his previous narrative turns, Hitchcock and November Criminals. He doesn’t avoid the lesson-y, the corny or the banal as he moves his central duo toward the drama’s climactic scenes. But his affection for Villechaize, and the significance of their real-life encounter, are undiluted by the schematic setup. The parallels between the two characters, at different points on the career/life uncertainty spectrum, might be overemphasized, but each in his own way is stoic, and Villechaize’s insights about the potential impact of their time together strike a deep chord. “Why hate yourself,” he asks Tate, “when you can hate me instead?” Against the odds, Dornan makes Tate’s ultimate acceptance of responsibility, in a phone call to his wife, truly affecting.
Gervasi’s screenplay, with its sure grasp of professional lingo, nonetheless pushes too hard at the story’s emotional undercurrents. It doesn’t help that Villechaize’s on-the-nose summing-up of the lessons to be learned begins with the glaring anachronism “At the end of the day.” One of the good things to be said about the ’90s is that this inane phrase wasn’t in widespread use. The observation that follows that tone-deaf introductory phrase is no better.
But in Villechaize’s final onscreen moments (which, in a sweet, two-pronged homage, includes a brief turn by Montalban’s grandson Alex Montalban as an ardent fan), Dinklage says it all. His remarkable wordless reaction is at once sheepish, knowing, proud and embarrassed. Like a well-shot arrow, that instant of self-awareness pierces the uneven narrative, straight to the broken heart.
Production companies: Filmrights, Daredevil Films, Civil Dawn Pictures, Metal on Metal, Estuary Films
Cast: Peter Dinklage, Jamie Dornan, Mireille Enos, David Strathairn, Andy Garcia, Harriet Walter, Oona Chaplin, Daniel Mays, Mark Povinelli, Wallace Langham, Robert Curtis Brown, Mark Umbers, Michael Elwyn, Ashleigh Brewer
Director: Sacha Gervasi
Screenwriter: Sacha Gervasi
Story by: Sacha Gervasi, Sean Macaulay
Producer: Nathalie Tanner
Executive producers: Steven Zaillian, Richard Middleton, Ross Katz, Jessica de Rothschild, Sacha Gervasi, Peter Dinklage
Director of photography: Maryse Alberti
Production designer: Jeremy Reed
Costume designer: Julie Weiss
Editor: Carol Littleton
Composer: David Norland
Casting directors: Kate Ringsell, Carmen Cuba