DVD Review: "My Dinner With Andre"

My Dinner With Andre
The Criterion Collection sets the table for "My Dinner With André."
By Jen Chaney
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 23, 2009; 12:00 AM

In the midst of the explosion-filled, bullet-riddled, Imaxed-out summer movie season, sometimes we need a film that delivers a nice, quiet, thoughtful dinner for two.

Enter "My Dinner With André" ($39.95), the 1981 classic that features what is, arguably, cinema's quintessential conversation. Actually, strike that. "Dinner" doesn't just "feature" a conversation. This Louis Malle picture -- shot at the then-shuttered Jefferson Hotel in Richmond, Va., -- is nothing but chat, focused fully on a back-and-forth between playwright Wallace Shawn and theater director André Gregory (both playing versions of themselves) that touches on everything from the arts to the banality of cocktail parties to what it means to live a genuine, full life.

For the many who revere "My Dinner With André" and have longed to see the film get its DVD due, Criterion's freshly polished digital transfer -- out today -- finally provides the perfect excuse to again dive into all that provocative, philosophical banter. Others, however, may find all the yapping about experimental theater and the authenticity of using electric blankets a bit pretentious, the equivalent of a "Seinfeld" episode with much more high-minded yadda, yadda, yadda.

Truthfully, looking at "André" through the prism of all the pop culture that has come and gone in the 28 years since its release is both the movie's blessing and curse. On one hand, the influence of Malle's unshowy, deft direction of all that dialogue can clearly be seen in subsequent films, like Richard Linklater's "Before Sunrise," and even TV series like Jon Favreau's "Dinner for Five." On the other, it may be difficult for some to appreciate this allegedly real conversation when we Americans are now so accustomed to catching actual candid moments at any second of the day on YouTube. Shawn and Gregory are acting, and jaded citizens of the new millennium will feel that from minute one.

But enough small talk. Let's move on to the DVD's extras, which are certainly above average, if not quite plentiful. The stronger of the two features on this DVD is the set of interviews with Gregory and Shawn, conducted by filmmaker Noah Baumbach ("The Squid and the Whale"). Both men engage in natural and remarkably candid conversation with the director as they recollect the making of "Dinner." Shawn, who admits to being a pain in the neck as a collaborator, comes across as particularly candid. "I don't think he looked forward to working with me again as a writer," the now 65-year-old says of Malle, who died in 1995. "It's very sad. But I was very difficult."

The second extra, Shawn's interview with Malle from a 1982 episode of the BBC series "Arena," allows Malle to explore and explain numerous highlights from his filmography, including "The Lovers" and "Atlantic City," all of which may be of great interest to students of his work. But those hoping to gain a broader understanding of where "My Dinner With André" sits in cinema history won't find that here; they're better off reading the booklet housed inside the DVD case, which includes a thorough, educational essay from film critic Amy Taubin.

Then again, this DVD isn't really meant for "Dinner" virgins. It's designed for people who already have enjoyed many meals with André and, with this DVD loaded into their players, can now uncork a bottle of wine, pull up a chair and eavesdrop, again and again, on the wonderful, charged words two men exchange between ordering appetizers and settling the check.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company