A few days ago I sat down to watch (finally!) the movie everyone was talking about back when I was too busy partying in college to watch. My Dinner With Andre, the 1981 movie starring Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn. At the beginning of the movie the Wallace Shawn character shares some brief inner dialogue with the viewer, then he and the Andre Gregory character meet in a restaurant, sit down together and start talking.
All of a sudden, my wife had an asthma issue that needed immediate attention, possibly even a call to the hospital. I immediately phoned a doctor friend of ours and recounted the symptoms, while searching medical websites for advice. I kept another computer screen open on a medical chat-site, asking questions and comparing symptoms with others online.
Over an hour passed, the problem was diagnosed and pills taken that ended the problem for my wife. My wife was OK to go to bed and I turned off my computer, thanked our friend and online chatters for their advice. Still too stressed to go to bed, I sat back in front of the TV, which was still on but muted, so I un-muted the TV and resumed watching My Dinner With Andre.
And guess what? The same two guys were in the same restaurant, still talking! And it doesn’t look as if anything has happened since the beginning of the movie, except maybe a change in the topics of conversation. But still…
I turned my computer back on and did some research. Could it really be that this movie is entirely about two guys sitting down in a restaurant and talking for almost two hours? That didn’t sound right.
But it was true! For almost two long hours they just talked! And what were they talking about for so long? Nothing interesting. No juicy gossip about anyone famous or financial secrets from which the listener can profit. The Andre character had dropped out of New York theater society for a few years to travel the world and find himself. He recounted his worldwide travels and bizarre experiences with other theater types.
And Wallace Shawn’s character was mostly relegated to being the listener, at times grunting whenever the Andre character needed to catch his breath. I could see spending a few minutes listening to his “I’ve-got-it-all-figured-out” self-deprecating schtick that he did so well in The Princess Bride, but no such luck in this movie.
But the Andre character – what a windbag! He is an example of someone who wants to talk and talk and not listen. For the most part they have no interest in hearing anyone else talk. That was Andre. Unless the viewer is intimidated into being impressed with mildly-philosophical self-reflection, the whole conversation was pretty excruciating, especially for an action-junky like me.
In fact, these two characters sitting around and talking for almost two hours was kind of like the “E.F. Hutton” commercials made famous during those years, except in reverse. Instead of leaning forward to hear what was being discussed, if a listener nearby heard any part of the conversation they would quickly check their watch and realize that they had to leave. Quickly.
I know that two-hour conversations occasionally happen in real life, but why make a movie about one? Seriously, this movie didn’t have any movement at all, except for the entry into and exit from the restaurant.
Sure, there are many intellectual films that are centered on conversations, where the plot turns on spoken words. But until My Dinner With Andre, there was at least some movement in such a movie. Even a walk.
Take for example the 1979 Woody Allen film Manhattan. Manhattan was a dialogue-centered movie with some movement and change of scenery. Towards the end of Manhattan the Woody Allen character realizes he misses his girlfriend and runs several blocks to see her. For those movie-goers who had just eaten dinner before watching this movie, this scene at least gave the movie-goer the feeling of having just gone on a walk. Kind of like the exhaustion viewers feel after watching Pumping Iron or the hangover they feel after watching Leaving Las Vegas.
But the viewer feels no such feelings after watching My Dinner With Andre. After watching this movie my only feeling was claustrophobia. And I am sure many of the viewers of this film felt the same way.
If the My Dinner With Andre conversation-only formula was appealing, you can bet it would have been copied. See, back in the 1980’s when My Dinner With Andre was made, probably more so than today, studios weren’t shy about copying box-office winners. Witness the movie Like Father Like Son and its progeny. If you hadn’t had enough of the adventures of kids and grown-ups trading places after watching Like Father Like Son, there was Big, Vice Versa, 18 Again!, and Dream A Little Dream. Similar themes and similar pay-offs. Same for all the beefcake/sword-and-sorcery movies like Conan The Barbarian, The Beastmaster, Lou Ferrigno’s Hercules, and Red Sonja. The first one worked and made some good money, so similar movies were made with similar pay-offs.
But there were no copies or imitations of My Dinner With Andre. Who would copy such a lousy idea? Such a format would be relatively cheap: all you need is to rent a restaurant, hire a few extras as waiters, and pay a small amount to a couple of lead actors with a promise of numerous close-ups. If the idea had any redeeming qualities or commercial potential whatsoever, a rip-off Dinner With Andre (you could name it My Brunch With Alvin) could be produced on a shoe-string.
(Spoiler alert, not that it matters…) As My Dinner With Andre mercifully came to close, the Wallace Shawn character leaves the restaurant and takes a taxi home to his girlfriend, and his inner dialogue says “Debbie was home from work. And I told her everything about my dinner with Andre.” At that point the wearied viewer yells at the TV or movie screen “…and tell her to avoid it!” And that is the opinion of this reviewer. Do not watch this movie.