Here’s the plot: two old friends meet for dinner at a posh New York restaurant and talk.
That’s really it. Yet somehow, it becomes this amazing film, probably one of my 10 favorites ever.
The film starts with playwright/actor Wallace Shawn walking through New York. In a voice-over, he talks about how he’d heard rumors about his friend of many years, Andre (Andre Gregory) having exhibited some odd behavior, and how he somehow got roped into this dinner with Andre. You can hear the dread in his voice–he doesn’t really want to go, but he’s promised, so…
Wally gets to the restaurant, and the maitre d’ directs him to the bar to await their table. Shawn orders a club soda, but the bartender corrects him, that they only serve “Source du Perrier.” (This is 1981, when only rich or pretentious people had even heard of Perrier, and the only “bottled water” was in gallon jugs)
I digress. Andre Gregory walks in, tall and handsome, wearing a nice sweater jacket, and immediately stands out against short, schmutzy Wally. It doesn’t matter. Andre wraps his friend up in a big hug, orders a spritzer, and by then their table is ready.
They sit down and make small-talk as they peruse the menu. The waiter comes and takes their order.
This is one of those restaurants I imagine in New York: people are dressed to the nines; they sparkle. Ladies wear diamonds; some of the men are in tuxedos. A classical trio plays quietly in one corner. It’s posh and rich and no doubt, hugely expensive.
Wally asks Andre, “So…what’s been going on?”
That question starts a conversation that lasts through appetizers, the main course (quail), the salad, and post-dinner espresso. In that same two hours, they talk. That’s it.
Andre Gregory recounts some amazing adventures he’s had, with theater workshops in Poland, trips to the Sahara, Nepal, India, and more. Initially, Wally looks at Andre awkwardly, as if he can’t really fathom why these trips were productive, and thinking that Andre had gone round the twist. There’s skepticism through the potato soup for Wally.
The conversation isn’t all about Andre’s odyssey. Wally counters with stories of living in New York, of being looked down upon when he was a Latin teacher, and how difficult it was to sell his plays or find enough acting work to make ends meet. (This is before his “inconthievable!” performance in “The Princess Bride” put him on the map)
The two friends commiserate & argue contrapuntal. They delve into the state of the theater and the state of the world.
One thing I noticed is how much more appealing Andre is. Again, he’s a handsome man, but his voice is smooth and expressive. He carries most of the dialogue, and the way he describes things, you can close your eyes, and imagine them perfectly.
Wallace Shawn, of course, is small and not handsome; he has an odd voice, and a lisp. But his voice has character, too.
The duo are yin and yang, basically.
It’s just two guys in a restaurant, one of them telling amazing tales; the other listening–perhaps skeptically, perhaps a bit enviously, too. They eat their dinner, leaving much of it on their plates.
They are the last diners in the restaurant. The waiter brings the check, and Andre insists on paying.
Wally treats himself to a taxi on his journey home, and…roll credits.
What is amazing to me about “My Dinner With Andre” is how two guys eating in a flouncy restaurant somewhere in New York, just having a casual conversation, can hold my attention so well. The mind’s eye is a powerful tool, and I found my imagination working, following Andre’s odd travels and experiences quite easily. On the screen were two guys eating. In my imaginations were the most amazing stories, all narrated in Andre’s smooth-as-silk voice.
The second thing that amazes me is that this movie is not two guys meeting in a New York restaurant for dinner. It is carefully scripted, meticulously filmed on a soundstage by Louis Malle. At a symposium on the film, the two actors–whose friendship in real life is far deeper than their on-screen personae–said the only difference they’d make if they reshot “My Dinner With Andre” is that they’d switch roles. Boy, would that be different.
One surprise I found watching this film, which was made 31 years ago, is how prescient some of the predictive elements of their conversation were. They talked about how people will withdraw, not share experiences together, and become “almost zombies.”
I think about my yesterday (Friday August 3rd, 2012), and I realize I said fewer than 20 words to actual, real, in person people. I had some lovely conversations via text and Internet, but in real life? “Hi. Thanks. Just keep the penny. Hi. Sorry, how much? Thanks.” (I’m assuming were not counting profanity while driving)
I think they nailed that prediction, and they offered some others that I hope don’t come true.
If somebody said to me that they hated “My Dinner With Andre,” I really wouldn’t fault them for it. Unless you consider a bowl of potato soup being served to be “action,” there is no action in this film. If you need action, look elsewhere.
“My Dinner With Andre” watches and listens to two guys having dinner. And it’s one of the most compelling, interesting films I’ve seen.
(notes: Not to sound like I’m shilling for hulu plus on the Interwebs, but they have this film, and a bajillion other good ones in “The Criterion Collection” area. It’s $7.95 a month, or something like that. I’d have paid that just to see this one. Also, I recommend reading Roger Ebert’s review under “The Great Movies.” His website is http://www.rogerebert.com)