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My Dinner with Andre: The Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review

My Dinner with Andre (1981) movie poster My Dinner with Andre

Theatrical Release: October 11, 1981 / Running Time: 111 Minutes / Rating: PG

Director: Louis Malle / Writers: Andre Gregory, Wallace Shawn

Cast: Andre Gregory (Andre Gregory), Wallace Shawn (Wally Shawn), Jean Lenauer (Waiter), Roy Butler (Bartender)

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In terms of plot synopsis, My Dinner with Andre may be the easiest film in the world to review. It only takes one sentence: Two friends reconnect for the first time in years over a shared restaurant meal. That's it. Roll credits.

Of course, such a succinct synopsis does not come close to doing this 1981 film justice. The simplicity of that unorthodox design is part of the brilliance.
Though it unfolds with two New York men just dining and chatting, there is a lot going on and plenty to talk about. The two men are Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory, playing realistic versions of themselves.

Shawn has since grown fairly famous for his film and television work, from voicing Toy Story's timid dinosaur Rex to prominent roles in two generations' high school hits (Clueless and "Gossip Girl") to his quotable turn in The Princess Bride. None of that had occurred back in 1981, when Shawn's filmography was limited to small roles in a few notable movies, like All That Jazz, Starting Over, and Woody Allen's Manhattan. That was still more than Gregory, an avant-garde theatre director, had done on film. He too would go on to some meaningful film roles, including John the Baptist in Martin Scorsese's controversial The Last Temptation of Christ. But no other work on film has seen either man pour as much of himself into it.

"My Dinner with Andre" turns a passionate restaurant conversation between Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory into a feature film.

Gregory and Shawn are the film's credited screenwriters and it is they who conceived and carefully crafted this seemingly spontaneous and improvised passionate conversation about life, love, and acting. French director Louis Malle, who had cast Shawn as a waiter in his Academy Award-nominated 1980 American drama Atlantic City, captures this meal with great intimacy and an absolute minimum of artifice. The line between fiction and documentary is blurred on this project, which IMDb classifies as Biography, Comedy, and Drama.

Shawn, a struggling playwright and underemployed actor, narrates on his journey via graffiti-covered subway to the upscale French restaurant that Gregory has chosen for their first meeting in five years. Coming with trepidation, the short, balding Shawn is transported by Gregory's enthusiastic details of how he has spent the past five years. Gregory tells of leading a workshop in a forest in Poland of forty women who do not speak English. He discusses eating sand in the Sahara desert with a Buddhist monk who then came to live with his family for six months. He recalls seeing and being unable to unsee a colorful monster at a Christmas Eve mass on Long Island.

Shawn listens, having found comfort in posing these questions and not showing any desire to inject himself into these tales or try to one-up them. We later learn that Shawn has no chance of competing with Gregory's soul-searching escapades. Shawn is content with his pragmatic life of errands, his girlfriend Debbie, and reading Charlton Heston's autobiography. Shawn describes and defends his existence in contrast to Gregory's examined life of globe-trotting and improvisation. Eventually, the conversation morphs into reflections on the current state of life, humans' growing immunity to real feelings, and the like.

Don't recognize Wallace Shawn from film and television? Inconceivable! Charming worldly avant garde theatre director Andre Gregory does most of the talking in the film's first hour.

The old chums' thoughts remain highly relevant and easy to sympathize with thirty-four years later. About the only thing that dates the discussion is mention of an electric blanket as the height of unnatural luxury. It is supremely easy to get lost in this passionate exchange of ideas.
Gregory, rarely an actor before or since, is surprisingly the more natural of the two performers. Charismatic and charming, his adventures are a perk of privilege, with Shawn noting he has been able to afford these world travels while continuing to support his family. Shawn is easier to relate to, a grounded worker who doesn't seem to be meeting his potential. You barely notice the two eating or drinking their meal of quail and wine, perhaps because they hardly do. The restaurant is merely the setting for the type of undistracted human interaction that few are capable of today.

This earnest, actionless experience sticks with a viewer long after it ends. Many have felt its power and many have taken note of its worth. Among its admirers are the people of The Criterion Collection, who thankfully rescued the film from potential obscurity with a 2-disc DVD in 2009 and this week brought the film to Blu-ray Disc, still claiming spine #479.

My Dinner with Andre: The Criterion Collection Blu-ray Disc cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray Disc Details

1.66:1 Widescreen
1.0 LPCM Mono (English)
Subtitles: English
Extras Not Subtitled; Not Closed Captioned
Suggested Retail Price: $39.95
Release Date: June 16, 2015
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (BD-50)
Clear Keepcase
Still available as 2-disc DVD ($39.95 SRP; June 23, 2009) and on Amazon Instant Video
Previously released as Fox Lorber DVD (August 25, 1998)

VIDEO and AUDIO

My Dinner with Andre looked awful in its original 1.33:1 Fox Lorber DVD. Of course you could count on Criterion to make it look better on DVD. Now, the company makes the film look even better on Blu-ray. The 1.66:1 presentation retains a fitting amount of fine film grain, an early '80s color palette, and a modest amount of detail, but it is sharp, steady, and clean as you expect a thoroughly remastered film to be. The sound, of course, could only be 1.0 LPCM. The monaural mix suits the material fine, with dialogue remaining crisp and intelligible throughout.

Wallace Shawn acknowledges to Noah Baumbach he wasn't easy on Louis Malle. Director Louis Malle is interviewed by Wallace Shawn in "My Dinner with Louis", a 1982 episode of BBC's "Arena."

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

On Blu-ray, My Dinner with Andre is joined by the same fine bonus features Criterion treated it to on DVD, though the company fits it all on a single dual-layered disc here.

First up is "Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn" (1:00:35), a 2009 piece that finds filmmaker Noah Baumbach (Frances Ha,

While We're Young) interviewing the movie's two stars-writers one at a time. Each half-hour chat sheds light on the film and on these two old friends, with us being served tons of juicy anecdotes about the project's conception, development, and production logistics. Both agree they are far from the characters they play in the film. It's like a commentary, only better and more suitable.

"My Dinner with Louis" (52:12) is a 1982 episode of the BBC series "Arena" that has Shawn interviewing director Louis Malle in Atlantic City. It's a thoughtful and enjoyable piece that deals not only with Andre but Malle's full career in film up until then, which is fittingly excerpted.

The deliciously understated menu plays restaurant sounds over an unchanging shot of a mildly stained tablecloth.

The final extra is housed inside the clear keepcase. It is a booklet, one that is fashioned like an old restaurant menu, complete with wine stains. Beyond all the basic film and disc info, it supplies two articles. "Long, Strange Trips" is a 2009 essay by film critic Amy Taubin which celebrates and dissects the film and its three principal makers. "On the Origins of My Dinner with Andre" gives us Shawn and Gregory's preface to the screenplay they published in tandem with the film's 1981 release. They gave complementary perspectives on how the film came about, each emphasizing

How do you get the faces of two men sitting across from each other at a table in the same shot? With a mirror! That's using your head, Louis Malle!

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Some people will be bored by My Dinner with Andre, unable to see the profundity in its feature-length conversation. I've seen it three times and find it one of the most interesting and engaging films ever made. While Criterion's Blu-ray does not surprise, it does delight with a phenomenal feature presentation (vastly superior to the film's original 1990s DVD) and a few valuable extras. I highly recommend this release.

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Related Reviews:
Louis Malle, Wallace Shawn & Andre Gregory: Vanya on 42nd Street | Andre Gregory: The Last Temptation of Christ
Wallace Shawn: The Princess Bride Clueless Toy Story Toy Story 2 Toy Story 3 Radio Days Vamps The Haunted Mansion
Criterion Loves the '80s: Babette's Feast My Life as a Dog The Vanishing

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Reviewed June 17, 2015.



Text copyright 2015 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 1981 and 2015 The Criterion Collection, Janus Films. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.