One day, in Hollywood, actor Eric Roberts has dinner with Rico Simonini, who is both a fellow actor and a cardiologist to the stars. They proceed to have a long and somewhat meandering conversation about …. well, just about everything.
Eric asks Rico how he balances being both an observant Catholic and, as a doctor, a man science. Rico asks if Eric ever met Marlon Brando, which leads to an amusing story about the morning that Eric mistook Brando for being Jack Nicholson’s gardener. They discuss how the movies have changed over the years, with Eric announcing that, with the exception of Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, there are no more movie stars left. Eric talks about how movies today are made quickly and cheaply and how the fact that we can now watch a movie anywhere has effectively ended the idea of movies being big events. Rico talks about seeing Frank Sinatra being brought to the hospital for the final time. They talk about their mutual love of Harry Dean Stanton and Burt Young. Eric says that, before he became a star, Bruce Willis was the best bartender New York had ever seen. Eric also talks about getting high with actor Sterling Hayden.
Oddly enough, the film skips around in time. We seem some snippets of conversation that were apparently shot at a different dinner between the two men. It’s during this second dinner that Eric is approached by a woman named Sandra who excitedly tells him that she loves his sister. “Your sister blows my panties off!” she exclaims before walking away. “Wow,” Rico says as an “OMG” thought balloon suddenly appears over Eric’s head.
The film sets itself up to make us believe that we’ll be eavesdropping on a casual, everyday conversation between the two men but, throughout the film, the men also acknowledge that they are being filmed. Two women who interrupt the conversation to ask for an autograph also smile straight at the camera. Are we watching a documentary or are we watching a fictionalized portrait of Eric and Rico’s friendship? On the one hand, the film’s opening credits specifically credits Rico and Eric Roberts as co-writing the screenplay, which would seem to suggest that we’re watching a scripted conversation. At the same time, Eric also gets a few details mixed up when he’s telling his stories. For instance, he says that Jack Nicholson was Oscar-nominated for Terms of Endearment the same year that Eric was nominated for Runaway Train. Actually, that year, Nicholson was nominated for Ironweed. It’s not a huge mistake and, indeed, there’s actually something undeniably charming about the fact that Roberts has been doing this for so long that he occasionally has a difficult time keeping his dates straight. But it’s the type of mistake that one makes while speaking off-the-top of one’s head as opposed to reciting lines from a script. Are we watching a true conversation or are we watching a recreation of a conversation? The film leaves it up to us to decide, a reminder that films can reflect reality while also being totally fictional.
When My Dinner With Eric started, the image was grainy and the hand-held camerawork was distracting. However, as soon as Eric complains that most films made today look like they were shot on someone’s phone, the image suddenly becomes crisper, the camerawork settles down, and even the film’s soundtrack becomes significantly less muddy. It’s as if, by calling out the poor visuals and sound quality of most low-budget films, Eric Roberts magically fixed this film. When Eric complains about the service at the restaurant, we get a De Palma-style split screen. When Eric talks about Rod Steiger, the film slips in a clip from On The Waterfront. Later, the film finds time to feature a clip from Kubrick’s The Killing. Even as we listen to the conversation between the two men, the directors make sure that we know that we’re watching a movie, once again tasking us with determining what is real and what is just being said for the cameras.
And yes, it’s all a bit self-indulgent and one could probably argue that this film is a vanity project for both Eric Roberts and Rico Simonini. But I have to admit that, after a rough start, I actually grew to like this film. Eric Roberts is a good conversationalist and, as you might expect from someone who has been working in the movies since the late 70s, he’s got a story for every occasion. There’s an unexpected and earnest sincerity to Eric Roberts in this film and, even more importantly, an undeniable love of acting. When the film starts, Eric seems awkward and a bit nervous. But once he starts talking about his technique and the roles that he loved and the ones that he lost out on, he seems to come alive and, before our eyes, he transforms into the quirky performer who has appeared in everything from tough crime films to straight-to-video thrillers to Lifetime melodramas to micro-budget faith movies. It’s interesting to watch and he and Rico seem to be having a good time talking to each other. Though Rico may not be as a famous as his friend, he still manages to hold his own in their conversation.
Do I recommend this film? If you’re a fan of Eric Roberts and if you have the patience necessary to stick with the film despite a somewhat rough beginning, then yes. It’s currently on Tubi.
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