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My Dinner with Andre (2-Disc)
DVD disk
06.23.2009 By: Mathew Plale
My Dinner with Andre (2-Disc) order
Director:
Louis Malle

Actors:
Wallace Shawn
Andre Gregory

Rating:
Movie:
Extras:
Overall:

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WHAT'S IT ABOUT?
Two old friends, playwright Wally (Shawn) and theater director Andre (Gregory), meet for dinner after years of having not seen one another.
IS IT A GOOD MOVIE?
The film opens with playwright Wally Shawn walking down a Manhattan street, occupying his mind in voiceover (in that trademark squawk only a distant aunt could love) over the woes of a playwright’s endless bills and, like any cultured cinematic New Yorker, Ingmar Bergman. He is on his way to dinner with, as he puts it, “a man I’d been avoiding literally for years.”

That man is Andre, a theater director who gave Wally his big break years and years ago. And then, unpredictably, he completely disappeared from the scene on a quest for enlightenment. For the first 40 minutes of My Dinner with Andre, Andre recollects his experiences in a Poland forest and the Sahara, his time with a Buddhist monk, etc. etc. etc., with frequent brushing references to the Holocaust in between.

Andre dominates the conversation, which runs the entirety of the dinner (good thing, too, otherwise the film would be called My Dinner with Andre, and How Afterwards We Gabbed the Whole Way Home in the Rain), while Wally only chimes in occasionally to ask, “Well what happened after that?”

But we get the sense he may not be all that interested, or that he just has nothing else to say for himself. After all, his New York adventures (shopping for a suit as a boy or frequenting an ice cream parlor after school) hardly stack up to Andre’s five-year journey. We’re in the same boat as Wally for most of the film--we have little to say, and nod only occasionally, but always lifelessly. And unless we pause the film to speak into our screens at Andre, what’s the point of it all? If you aren’t there or you don’t know those involved (both of which are the case for 99% of the audience), the entire situation is a terrible bore.

My Dinner with Andre is from the screenplay by Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory. It blossomed out of hours of taped conversations between the two on topics such as art, death, purpose, etc. etc. etc. And here they sit, Wally and Andre, supposedly not playing themselves, but variations--even though Shawn is a playwright and Gregory a theater director. Got it?

This was only French filmmaker Louis Malle’s third film completely in English, after 1978’s Pretty Baby and ’81’s Atlantic City, which premiered just six months before My Dinner with Andre. It is a philosophical experiment intended exclusively for the art house audience.

But one thing impressive can be said of the film: it, like any well-made picture, builds and (if not rushes) creeps to its climax. The film begins as a monologue, then turns into conversation, and then into debate and argument. The most rapturous moment comes when Wally, who has been biting his tongue for nearly 90 minutes, erupts in a rant on omens and coincidence that is best witnessed than quoted.

So yes, for maybe 80% of its 111-minute duration, My Dinner with Andre is dull, for reasons faulted to director Malle who, no matter how many close-ups his camera shoots, never puts us into the conversation, and scribes/actors Shawn and Gregory, who would have found their work better fit for the playhouse. Wait for the video game.
THE EXTRAS
Interviews (1:00:36): In these newly-recorded interviews, Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn sit down individually with filmmaker Noah Baumbach (whose Kicking and Screaming is also in the Criterion Collection) to discuss a variety of topics. Gregory, now 75, reminisces on when he and Shawn met and how the film came about, the (im)possible sequel idea, and more. Shawn, 65, reflects on his work as a writer, his director, seeing the Manhattan Project’s production of Alice, and the “lost” three-hour version of My Dinner with Andre.

“My Dinner with Louis” (52:08): In this 1982 episode of BBC’s “Arena”, Wallace Shawn “interrogates” director Louis Malle in Atlantic City where, two years earlier, Malle shot his Academy Award-nominated film of the same name. In the runtime, Malle (with the help of film clips), remembers his time spent with Jacques Cousteau and his then 24-year film career, which grew in both France and the U.S.

Also included on this Criterion Collection DVD is a 28-page booklet with an essay titled “Long, Strange Trips” by Film Comment and Sight & Sound contributing editor Amy Taubin, and Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn’s prefaces to the published screenplay.
FINAL DIAGNOSIS
My Dinner with Andre certainly has its following, but will be an impossibility for many to sit through. It's plotless, moves slow, and is visually stale. Still, the cult classic has found a good home in the Criterion Collection, who supply a trio of insightful interviews and a thick booklet to accompany the film.
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