'The Invitation' serves up a dinner party from hell (unrated)

At the start of The Invitation, Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and his girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) are driving through the Hollywood hills on their way to a dinner party when they hit a coyote with their car. Will uses a tire iron to mercy-kill the wounded animal. This is known as “foreshadowing.”

Upon arriving, the couple is greeted by their hosts, Will’s ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard) and her new husband David (Michiel Huisman, aka Game of Thrones’ Daario). David is obsessed with keeping the front door locked, while Eden seems a bit off — she grins too much, her eyes are vacant, she’s barefoot — and there’s a strange woman who leers at Will from the hallway, naked from the waist down. None of the other dinner guests (a gay couple, an Asian-American, a funny fat guy) sees her. This is known as “establishing a strange mood.”

Through quick flashbacks, the movie fills us in on Will and Eden’s history. They were once happily married with a young son and planning to have another child. Then tragedy struck. Their kid was killed, and their relationship disintegrated. They haven’t seen each other in two years or stayed in touch until tonight, because the memories were too painful. This is known as “backstory.”

The rest of The Invitation, which takes place over the course of the dinner party, is known as “hogwash.” The movie was supposed to be a comeback of sorts for director Karyn Kusama, who turned Michelle Rodriguez into a star with her 2000 debut Girlfight, crashed with the big-budget disaster Aeon Flux and was sent to Hollywood jail after the box office failure of the underappreciated horror-comedy Jennifer’s Body.

Set almost entirely in one location and shot in widescreen to accommodate its ensemble cast, The Invitation seems tailor-made for a talented filmmaker who wants to show off skills within the constraints of a small budget. But the script, by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi (who somehow still find work after having written The Tuxedo, R.I.P.D., and Clash of the Titans), is flimsy and nonsensical in the manner of cheap, straight-to-video-not-even-VOD horror pictures, and Kusama’s direction is clumsy and uninspired. She also telegraphs too many of the plot’s twists.

For example: John Carroll Lynch plays one of the last people to arrive to the party. In David Fincher’s Zodiac, Lynch played a man who was practically revealed to be the Zodiac killer. In The Invitation, the actor essentially reprises that exact performance. When a paranoid Will exclaims “There is something strange going on here!” the line is so obvious and overdue it comes off as comical.

The Invitation wants to comment on the different ways people deal with irreparable grief: Some learn to live with it, some succumb to it, others go crazy. The film’s final shot is terrific, conveying the unsettling menace the rest of the movie has been striving to achieve. But the picture is hard to take seriously, because the actors can’t sell the illusion of being old friends — these characters behave as if they just met each other — and the script requires them to act in illogical ways.

Put it this way: If you were at a creepy dinner party, and the hosts decided to show a video of their vacation in which they spent time with a crazy cult leader in Mexico, would you stick around for the main course, no matter how good the wine was?

Cast: Logan Marshall-Green, Tammy Blanchard, Michiel Huisman, Emayatzy Corinealdi, John Carroll Lynch.

Director: Karyn Kusama.

Screenwriters: Phil Hay, Matt Manfredi.

A Drafthouse Films release. Running time: 100 minutes. Vulgar language, nudity, violence, adult themes. In Miami-Dade only: O Cinema Wynwood.

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