Film critic Gene Siskel claimed that he always asked himself the same question when watching a movie: “Is the movie that I am watching as interesting as a documentary of the same actors having lunch together?” It's no wonder that Siskel (along with his At the Movies co-host Roger Ebert) was one of the most prominent champions of My Dinner with Andre, a film which demonstrates that there's actually a great deal of compelling material to be mined from watching two interesting people share a meal.
The film boasts one of the simplest plots of all time: playwright and actor Wallace Shawn (The Princess Bride) meets up with avant-garde theatre director Andre Gregory (Demolition Man) for dinner. The two of them have a long conversation. The end. It sounds dull (or at least blandly static) on paper, but what's remarkable about the film is that it draws you into the conversation so effectively that you stop thinking about the limitations of the premise.
Have you ever had one of those long evening conversations that wander into the wee hours of the morning? The ones that start with simple chatter and slowly begin to turn philosophical, spiritual or personal? My Dinner with Andre captures a conversation like that. In the early scenes, Andre does almost all of the talking. He regales Wally with tales of artistic adventures in far-away places: staging ambitious theatre experiments in Poland, experiencing vivid hallucinations in Findhorn, attempting to produce a play in the Sahara desert, etc. Andre is tall, lean, energetic and full of new age ideas – there's an irrepressible twinkle in his eye as he tells his stories. Wally is short, bald, deferential and perplexed – he spends most of the film's first hour simply listening and raising his eyebrows.
The film is meant to feel like an improvised conversation between two real people, but Gregory and Shawn have long insisted that they are merely playing characters that happen to share their names (both claim that if given the opportunity to remake the film, they would switch roles in order to demonstrate this). Additionally, the screenplay (co-written by Shawn and Gregory) is a carefully-constructed thing based on bits and pieces of many conversations Shawn and Gregory conducted over the course of several weeks (they recorded everything, then went back, searched for the most promising bits and fine-tuned them). There were a lot of debates with director Louis Malle (who eagerly volunteered to helm the film after reading the screenplay) about the scenes that should and shouldn't stay, but the end result is a conversation that flows beautifully without ever feeling too “written.”
Malle's direction is deceptively straightforward. He rarely uses the rest of the restaurant for atmosphere, instead focusing almost exclusively on the faces of his actors. The camera creeps in or retreats ever-so-slightly from shot to shot, and we're reminded once again that much of acting is reacting (look at the countless subtle things Shawn does with his face in the first half, and the amused grins Gregory supplies in the second). There's a little music and narration to bookend the film, but otherwise it's all just shots of two men talking (with occasional appearances by a courteous waiter).
Andre's wild tales in the film's first half are engaging, but the second half – when the film shifts from a series of monologues to a real dialogue – is where things start to get interesting. You begin to see beneath the surface of these two characters as they dig deeper into their fundamental beliefs. One of my favorite exchanges comes after Andre suggests that the modern society is too comfortable, and that we lose our ability to truly see the world as a result of that comfort:
Wally: “Yeah, but I mean, I would never give up my electric blanket, Andre. I mean, because New York is cold in the winter. I mean, our apartment is cold! It's a difficult environment. I mean, our life is tough enough as it is. I'm not looking for ways to get rid of a few things that provide relief and comfort. I mean, on the contrary, I'm looking for more comfort because the world is very abrasive. I mean, I'm trying to protect myself because, really, there's these abrasive beatings to be avoided everywhere you look!"
Andre: “But, Wally, don't you see that comfort can be dangerous? I mean, you like to be comfortable and I like to be comfortable too, but comfort can lull you into a dangerous tranquility.”
Of course, the world has changed a great deal since My Dinner with Andre was made. The New York of the early '80s bears little resemblance to the New York of the 21st century, and technology has altered the way we conduct our daily lives dramatically. Surprisingly, the film has only become more relevant with time, as many of the issues addressed feel like knowing introductions to the decades that would follow. In a world that has everything, it's hard to feel anything. “Things don't affect people the way they used to,” Andre sighs. “I mean it may very well be that ten years from now, people will pay $10,000 in cash to be castrated, just to be affected by something.”
The clash between Andre's largely philosophical view of the world and Wally's largely practical one is compelling, and you're almost certain to find elements of both viewpoints to identify with. I used to find Andre a bit pretentious and Wally lovably sensible. As I get older, I find Andre's perspective increasingly wise, which undoubtedly means that others are beginning to find me a bit pretentious. On the other hand, I still value Wally's argument that it should be just as easy to find beauty and wonder in a New York barbershop as it is to find it atop Mount Everest... and I certainly find Wally's trust in science far more appealing than Andre's pseudo-spiritual grab bag of superstitions. The movie isn't about who's right or who's wrong or making a grand, definitive statement, but about the way the conversation gradually evolves from casual anecdotes to soul-baring honesty. It captures that all-too-rare moment when a conversation between peers turns into a series of private professions and confessions. When Wally and Andre first sit down, they see each other as they want to be seen. By the end of meal, they have seen each other as they are.
My Dinner with Andre
Rating: ★★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 111 minutes
Release Year: 1981