Studio: The Criterion Collection
Cast: Andr╚ Gregory, Wallace Shawn
Director: Louis Malle
Release Date: July 10, 2009, 7:30 am
Rating: Not Rated for
Run Time: 01h:51m:36s
"You really want to hear about all of this?" - Andr╚ Gregory
Movie Grade: B+
DVD Grade: B
I know we're supposed to get all loopy over this movie, and that I'll lose some of my indie film street cred for having less than glowing things to say about it. It's an incredibly important film, in many respectsˇI remember Roger Ebert's review from its initial theatrical release, and the celebration of the film generally in its time. It's a movie to make you think, it's two hours of good, smart talk, it's intellectually engaging and challenging in an era of movies in which usually we watch stuff get blowed up real good. And all of that is true, and the movie has many virtues. But I'd also gingerly argue that our collective memory of it may be more powerful than the movie itself, that revisiting it nearly thirty years later is kind of like going back to that book that spoke directly to you in high school, and finding that it seems kind of pat and trite. (I can't really bring myself to re-crack the spine on my much-loved copy of Franny and Zooey, for example.) Other hand: Corky St. Clair was on to something with his My Dinner with Andr╚ action figures.
The premise and the plot are laid out in the title: struggling playwright Wallace Shawn goes to meet his friend, wayward theatrical director Andr╚ Gregory, for dinner. They eat, they chat, they go home. The meat of the movie of course is in the talkˇa free-ranging conversation about Gregory's spiritual quests, about the role of theater and its possibilities, about the responsibilities we owe to ourselves and our communities. It's artfully constructed, in that both men are extraordinarily articulate and deliver their well-written arias with relishˇupon re-viewing, though, you may be struck by the fact that they're better writers than they are actors, and that the delivery can be a little plodding. Director Louis Malle guides them with a steady and unobtrusive handˇit's not a visually splendid movie, but it doesn't feature unnecessary, attention-grabbing camera moves, either, in misguided attempts to relieve the visual torpor.
If you're familiar with Shawn's plays, the feeling is familiarˇhe's clearly a bright guy, but it feels frequently as if he should be an op-ed columnist and not a playwright, that there's something visceral lacking in much of his work. (According to The New York Times, his work is having something of a renaissance on the London stage.) Intellectual engagement is a wonderful thing, as is literature; but, you know, Henry James wouldn't have made for much of a screenwriter, I don't think. There's also no denying some ungainly transitionsˇGregory's monologues are interrupted only by Shawn's naked prodding: "So what happened then?" "Tell me some of the other things you did with your group." Also, despite their obvious self-awareness, Gregory (particularly) and Shawn still display a fair amount of pretentiousnessˇAndr╚ tells us, "I consider myself a bit of a Surrealist," and casually drops into conversation, "We borrowed Dick Avedon's property out at Montauk." My dears, who hasn't? It can be easy to smack them around a little bit, but these are the kind of things that come at you on second and third viewings, I'd wagerˇif it's your first time hearing all the talk, you're likely to be enchanted.
And though the talk doesn't seem dated, it is something of a period pieceˇShawn's journey to the restaurant takes us onto the graffiti-strewn subway cars of Koch-era new York, and they seem enormously impressed with their own sophistication when at the end of the meal they order espressos. (How exotic! How urbane!) There's a good dose of apocalyptic, elitist cynicism shot through a lot of thisˇthe human condition is perilous, but most people not at this table are too stupid to appreciate that. They're flattering their own intelligences, but frequently speaking down to ours.
Disc Two of the set offers three accompanying documentaries, brimming, no shock, with more good talk. Filmmaker Noah Baumbach, obviously deeply influenced by the picture, visits separately with Gregory and Shawn, who discuss their friendship and the film; and in My Dinner with Louis, a 1985 documentary, Shawn travels to Atlantic City to dine with his director. The hour-long piece makes for a great career overview of Malle's work.
Jon Danziger July 10, 2009, 7:30 am