An intimate theater piece conceived for the movies, "My Dinner With Andre" illustrates how much human interest, entertainment value and even philosophical inquiry can be derived from a situation as static as a dinner conversation. It should also prove a great incentive for dining out and shooting the bull in general.
The amusing and eloquent conversationalists in "My Dinner" are real-life theatrical friends, the actor-playwright Wallace Shawn and the director Andre Gregory, who pretend to renew acquaintances over dinner at an elegant New York restaurant after a separation of several years. Gregory, apparently having experienced a spiritual crisis of some kind, abandoned his career and spent several years traveling impulsively to remote communal outposts around the world.
Shawn will probably be a familiar face to many moviegoers who don't recognize the name. A distinctive comic presence -- short, dumpy, rumpled, balding, knobby-featured, high-voiced, excitable, with a funny scrutinizing expression that causes his whole face rather than just the brow to "knit" skeptically -- he appeared as Diane Keaton's ex in "Manhattan," a member of Burt Reynolds' therapy group in "Starting Over" and one of the malicious scientists in "Simon."
Since Gregory made his reputation in the late '60s and early '70s directing experimental, outrageous productions for an off-off-Broadway company of his own creation called the Manhattan Project, his name may be familiar to devoted theatergoers. His most famous production was a madly inventive, erotic "Alice in Wonderland." Shortly before dropping out, Gregory had directed a play by Wallace Shawn called "Our Late Night."
Even if he enters your consciousness as a total stranger, Gregory has no trouble imposing his personality. He's a commanding figure and physically the opposite of Shawn, about 10 years his junior. Tall, lean, graceful, his features sharply chiseled, his wardrobe casually stylish, his voice beautifully trained and modulated, Gregory projects romantic charm and magnetism. The physical contrast between the men is, of course, a comic resource, corresponding to the contrasts in their temperaments. Gregory embodies Don Quixote to Shawn's Sancho Panza, Don Juan to his Leperello, the grasshopper to his ant, the eagle to his mole, the idealist to his realist, the restless romantic to his contented homebody. The contrast is also calculated for astute, ingratiating ironic flip-flops: the realization that handsome, magnetic Gregory can look and sound utterly foolish, while the homely, clownish Shawn can acquire a beautiful sort of facial animation in the act of self-expression.
Shawn initiated the project and devised the script, distilling a few hundred hours of casually taped conversations into a dinner table dialogue lasting roughly two hours. Directed by Louis Malle, the friends spent three weeks impersonating themselves in a setting created at the Jefferson Hotel in Richmond, Va., so don't bother to look for the "real" restaurant on your next trip to New York. The production cost was slightly less than $500,000.
Shawn provides voice-over narration during a brief prologue and epilogue. The remaining 100 minutes or so are devoted to his dialogue with Gregory, who sustains a virtual monologue in the opening phase of the conversation, recounting his travels and misadventures in search of mystic enlightenment and gratification. Shawn, a fascinated but obviously skeptical listener, chimes in with an occasional monosyllabic exclamation. He comes into his own as a talker in the concluding phase, balancing Gregory's predilection for potentially crackpot sources of inspiration with a stirring defense of the joys and artistic possibilities inherent in everyday experience.
The tendency of the monologue phase may be suggested by the following extract:
Andre: I heard about this community in Scotland called Findhorn where people sang and talked and meditated with plants.
Andre: And it was founded by several rather middle-class English and Scottish eccentrics -- some of them intellectuals, some of them not . . . And so I went there, and I mean, it is an amazing place, Wally, I mean, if there are insects bothering their plants, they will talk with the insects, and you know, make an agreement where they will set aside a special patch just for the insects . . . They live with a sort of wild enthusiasm -- you know, the word "enthusiasm" refers to "the god within," and they do somehow seem to see the god within everything . . . And anyway, it just absolutely blasted me open. I mean, when I came out of Findhorn I was hallucinating nonstop. I was seeing clouds as creatures, the people in the airplane all had animals' faces, I mean I was on a trip.
Despite the funny aspects of Gregory's testimony, you're not certain the movie can be sustained. The suspicion persists that Gregory's spiritual meandering may have taken directions that are too specialized -- self-indulgent escape routes available only to a disillusioned, independently wealthy Man of the Theater -- to seem either coherent or sympathetic to outsiders. The suspicion evaporates when you discover that there came a point, after he was buried alive as part of a Halloween ceremony among semi-berserk theatrical cronies out on the Long Island estate of Richard Avedon, when the quest lost its allure for Gregory himself. "That was the last really big event," he disarmingly remarks. "I began to realize that I just didn't want to do these things anymore . . . I'm sort of repelled by the whole story, if you really want to know . . . I'm just very dubious about the kind of person who would have lived these last few years the way I did."
This admission opens up the conversation, and I think it also opens up the spectator's range of sympathy. As Gregory goes on to take stock of his actions and Shawn responds, one feels increasingly drawn to both men and touched by the contradictory impulses that they embody and try to articulate.
You feel as if you're a party to something dramatically authentic, privileged and illuminating, a renewal of friendship through the process of dialogue. The movie leaves funny lingering impressions -- for example, the clear implication that a guy who looks like Gregory can always get away with more self-indulgent folly than a guy who looks like Shawn -- and a spooky sense of the fundamental mystery of human individuality, summed up admirably by Gregory: "The closer you come, I think, to another human being, the more really completely mysterious that person becomes."