Media Dan Has Consumed: My Dinner with Andre

I was going to call this new feature “Stuff Dan Likes,” and give myself an outlet to recommend books and movies and such, but then I remembered that sometimes I like to talk about things I didn’t like, either to point out the flaws or just to be a jerk, so I decided a non-qualitative name would give me a wider umbrella.

The first entry in the series is a movie I’ve wanted to see for years, and finally got the chance last week: the crazy indie experiment My Dinner with Andre. It’s a movie about two New York theater guys, a playwright and a director, playing themselves, eating dinner and talking. For two hours. That makes it sound boring, but it’s actually one of the most spellbinding movies I’ve ever seen. Gene Siskel used to say that a movie should be at least as interesting, and ideally more interesting, than a documentary of the same actors having lunch; it’s sounds weird, I know, but when you really think about it I think you’ll agree that most movies don’t pass that test. Characters get stripped down to their most basic stereotypes, walking rotely through plots we’ve seen plenty of times before, and without a bit of skin or some car chases or explosions there’s really nothing to hold our attention.

My Dinner with Andre not only demonstrates the Siskel Test in action, but takes it one step further by making the dinner conversation completely and utterly fascinating. We begin with Wallace Shawn (best known as Vizzini from The Princess Bride, but actually a respected playwright and stage actor), looking small and shlubby and talking about his struggles to get by in the big city. He meets Andre Gregory (best known as the guy from My Dinner with Andre, unless you’re a close follower of New York theater, I guess), who is tall and dramatic and a mesmerizing storyteller. He has spent several years traveling the world, getting himself involved in wacky, experimental theater projects (he teaches an acting class in Poland, for example, with very strict guidelines: the students must be experienced actors who want to give up acting, they must play the harp or flute, and they must be non-English speakers so he can’t actually communicate with them. Then they all go live in the woods for a month just to see what happens). Andre goes on and on, weaving tales about his travels and the strange people he met and the life lessons he learned, and you in the audience are captivated: it’s just a guy talking, while another guy nods and sips his soup, but you can’t stop watching.

Andre’s stories would potentially have sustained the whole movie, and it would have been a good movie, but then something happens that makes it great: Wallace disagrees. He blows up (very politely), calling Andre on his bizarre theories of life, insisting that life is about simplicity and comfort, not crazy theater experiments in the Sahara, and suddenly this is not a monologue but a conversation; it has conflict and story and surprising weight. They go back and forth, sometimes arguing, sometimes agreeing with each other, proposing their own theories about what life is, and what makes it good, and what would make it better. Neither of them is right, and neither of them is wrong; it is the conversation itself that matters, the ebb and flow of it, the fact that they are talking to each other deeply and personally about subjects that really matter.

The movie has virtually no plot, and absolutely no narrative, but it has a story: there is conflict and resolution, there is a powerful climax, and there is a touching denouement. In an industry increasingly focused on skin and explosions, here is a movie about the human need for communication and companionship. It will make you think about your own friends, and the conversations you have with them, and it will make you want to have more of them. I can’t remember the last time a movie affected me this deeply.

8 Responses to “Media Dan Has Consumed: My Dinner with Andre”

  1. L.T. Elliot says:

    What a fascinating concept. I think I’ll have to see it.

  2. Arlene says:

    So it’s just the two of them?

  3. Debbie says:

    I thought you said “Dude, Where’s My Car” captivated your attention and made you question life in a new way.

  4. admin says:

    Arlene: There are a handful of other very minor characters, like a waiter and a bartender, but 99.9% of the movie is just the two guys sitting at a table and talking.

  5. Callisto says:

    Huh. Interesting premise… I’ll check it out.

  6. Titus says:

    It was very interesting. It felt like a 1960s art film for the most part, and some of the arguments have been well worn over the years, but it still serves a good purpose. Few people think about this kind of thing anymore, and it’s good to have a piece of media that can so blatantly address issues with society. I was getting a bit bored from 30:00 to 45:00, but Wallace Shawn stopped sitting there with a puzzled look on his face and talked. Thank God. :P

    The test of a film being more interesting that its stars sitting around having lunch is a good one. For example, I saw Twilight for the first time this weekend. It was awful. Then, because it wasn’t due for a few days, I watched all of the deleted scenes (which would have doubled the dialogue time and overall substance of the film if they hadn’t been deleted), music videos, and, being insanely bored, the commentary.

    Guys! The commentary was better than the film! The participants were the director (Catherine Hardwicke), Robert Pattinson (Edward), and Kristen Stewart (Bella). The director was an idiot, as I’m sure any of you who watched the film noticed, but what really made the commentary amazing is that Pattinson made fun of the director and the film half of the time and his own appearance the other. The cuts flew right over Hardwicke’s head. Awesome.

    When the stars of Dinner were talking about peoples’ general inability to say what they really are feeling/thinking, I thought of poor Robert Patinson being locked in a room and forced to watch Twilight. I think he was partially reacting out of dislike for having to watch himself on screen (he ran out of a showing 15 minutes in because he “couldn’t stand it”), which I will admit is very difficult, but partially because he didn’t respect the director professionally. That’s what I was picking up from him anyway. I could be wrong. Anyway, my family laughed our butts off.

  7. admin says:

    Titus, that’s the same stretch where I got bored as well. I think they could have done without quite so much of “Andre’s wacky adventures.” Still, everything after that became absolutely riveting, so I forgave it the speed bump.

  8. 42 says:

    I haven’t seen “My Dinner with Andre” in years. I was required watching by one of my English teachers.

    Oddly, the only time I encountered it again was in a film class I took at BYU. The teacher I had there just mentioned it as a failure of a film.

    This is not to say that you are not welcome to enjoy it and everything you have said about the film is valid. When I saw it in high school, I hated it.

    I think it come down that I feel it would be a very well-done radio play. The movie succeeds on a verbal level, but I can’t see how it succeeds on a visual level. What is lost if the photographic element is taken out? Not that I’m against minimalism, but “My Dinner with Andre” doesn’t communicate much visually for the amount of space and time it uses.

    I might give the movie another try sometime, but I still would rather just hear it and not see it.

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