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Vanya on 42nd Street: The Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review

Vanya on 42nd Street (1994) movie poster Vanya on 42nd Street

Theatrical Release: October 21, 1994 / Running Time: 120 Minutes / Rating: PG

Director: Louis Malle / Writers: Anton Chekhov (play Uncle Vanya); David Mamet (adaptation)

Cast: Phoebe Brand (Nanny Marina), Lynn Cohen (Maman), George Gaynes (Prof. Serebryakov), Jerry Mayer (Waffles), Julianne Moore (Yelena), Larry Pine (Dr. Astrov), Brooke Smith (Sonya), Wallace Shawn (Vanya), André Gregory (Himself), Madhur Jaffrey (Mrs. Chao), Oren Moverman (Flip Innunu - uncredited)

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André Gregory, Wallace Shawn, and Louis Malle won much notice and acclaim for My Dinner with Andre. That unorthodox little 1981 film, directed by Malle and written and performed by Gregory and Shawn as versions of themselves, consisted of a single passionate, partly fictional restaurant conversation between two estranged friends. It is an arresting drama which illustrates the power of the spoken word, film, and theatre at their most basic essence.

Gregory, Shawn, and Malle reunited for what would be Malle's final film, 1994's Vanya on 42nd Street. Equally unconventional, driven by dialogue, and nonfictional,
this drama was no mere follow-up to My Dinner but the culmination of a real artistic project that Gregory as director and a cast of nine had spent several years on.

Gregory had dabbled in experimental avant-garde theatre in New York since the 1960s, when he launched his own company. As My Dinner detailed, he grew weary of modern society and left the country to indulge in esoteric theatrical exercises in Poland. In 1989, Gregory put together a troupe of actors to perform David Mamet's adaptation of Anton Chekhov's esteemed turn-of-the-century play Uncle Vanya. It was more of a workshop than anything else, as Gregory and his cast agreed to never actually put on the play in a traditional sense. The cast included Shawn in the title role and up-and-coming film actress Julianne Moore as Yelena, the unobtainable object of his affections. They would come to perform for an intimate invitation-only audience of around twenty people, the performance always differing based on the day's moods.

In 1994, the group agreed to preserve their private collaboration and share it with general audiences by producing a film version directed by Malle. Rather than a full-blown performance of Chekhov via Mamet, the company brought the play to life in the same informal way they always had: no costumes, no sets, no discernible audience. Mamet had them gather in the century-old New Amsterdam Theatre in the heart of Broadway. If you recognize that location as the home to Disney's The Lion King and Mary Poppins stage adaptations, you will be shocked to see the theatre in such disrepair in the middle of the '90s. It is abandoned and rundown. Nets are strung up to catch the pieces of plaster that occasionally fall from the ceiling and balcony. It is stunningly ghastly and an oddly appropriate place for Gregory, Malle, and their accomplished shared cast to film a full run-through of Vanya.

My street cart snack with Andre: the play's director André Gregory takes a bite out of Wallace Shawn's knish in the film's outdoor opening. The play portion of the film begins without you realizing it as Marina (Phoebe Brand) and Dr. Astrov (Larry Pine) discuss age and alcohol.

Much like My Dinner, this film begins with the actors approaching their destination. Given the size of the cast and the crowded Times Square sidewalks they travel, this more resembles the opening titles of "Saturday Night Live" both then and now. But though they too may be accustomed to drawing laughs from live Manhattan performances, these actors are nothing like the lively clown and party animal personas that "SNL" cast members project. The Vanya cast is all about the craft and the art, even performing in a dark, dilapidated theatre for a small camera crew.

Vanya (Shawn) is a bitter, depressed, and suicidal intellectual, sleeping late and feeling his age of 47. He lives on a country estate in Russia with his mother (Lynne Cohen); Sonya (Brooke Smith), the young adult daughter of his deceased sister; the jolly Waffles (Jerry Mayer), nicknamed for his pockmarks; and a nanny (Phoebe Brand). The estate's owner, a retired old university professor (George Gaynes, best known as Punky Brewster's guardian Henry Warnimont), visits with his new 27-year-old wife Yelena (Moore), who captures everyone's eye, especially Vanya's.

Everyone is unhappy for one reason or another. For example, Sonya laments being "plain" while secretly pining for the affections of the Doctor (Larry Pine) who now visits on a near-daily basis. But the play is anything but depressing, as Chekhov's writing and Mamet's modern translation of it (free of any slang and of Mamet's trademark profanity) are packed with wit and wisdom. The play offers profound insight into the human condition, which explains why it remains so well-known and highly regarded over a century after its debut.

Young trophy wife Yelena (Julianne Moore) must rebuke advances from Vanya (Wallace Shawn) and another smitten man. Immediately prior to Disney's restoration of it, the dilapidated New Amsterdam Theatre had seen much better days.

There isn't too much to be said about Vanya on 42nd Street's presentation. It is neither a whole-hearted adaptation of the play nor much of a cinematic expression. As much as anything else, it seems to be about these actors gathering at this time and place to explore their calling, but it doesn't vocalize or inspect that motif, limiting out-of-character material to the briefest of chit-chat at the opening (from which it seamlessly transitions to the rehearsal, with viewers needing a moment to realize that)
and in between acts (which provide our brief few looks at Gregory and his process).

It's not that we need Malle or Gregory to belabor or emphasize what is plain to see. It's just that its significance undoubtedly feels greater to the participants than to those of us comprising the afterthought of a movie audience. For us, the presentation is pleasant and compelling enough, but also pretentious and narcissistic.

Vanya on 42nd Street had a little more impact at the box office than you might have guessed, grossing a respectable, budget-clearing $1.75 million over the course of many weeks playing in no more than 28 theaters. The numbers weren't nearly as strong as 1994's most buzzed-about limited releases, indies like Clerks, Hoop Dreams, and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, which all opened within two months of Vanya. Vanya only received a small handful of awards and nominations, most notable of which may be Moore's Best Actress honor from the Boston Society of Film Critics and Shawn's tie with The Shawshank Redemption's Morgan Freeman for the premier Boston-based Chlotrudis Society's Best Actor award (clearly, Boston liked the movie, a fact reinforced in the trailer's critic quotes).

Vanya recently got a pretty substantial boost in recognition when it followed Malle's My Dinner with Andre into The Criterion Collection. Nearly ten full years after Sony Pictures Home Entertainment's DVD release of the film, Vanya has been assigned Criterion spine number 599 on both DVD and Blu-ray, the latter of which we critique here.

Vanya on 42nd Street: The Criterion Collection Blu-ray cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray Disc Details

1.66:1 Widescreen
LCPM Stereo 2.0 (English)
Subtitles: English
Not Closed Captioned; Extras Not Subtitled
Release Date: February 28, 2012
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (BD-50)
Suggested Retail Price: $39.95
Clear Keepcase
Also available on DVD ($29.95 SRP) and on Amazon Instant Video
Previously released as Sony DVD (September 24, 2002)


Vanya on 42nd Street is presented in 1.66:1 widescreen, a ratio slightly narrower than the 1.85:1 Sony apparently used on its DVD. The Blu-ray's strong picture boasts a clean element and appropriate sharpness. The colors seem a bit on the pale side, but that might just be how they were rendered as shot cheaply on video with minimal lighting. The LPCM 2.0 stereo mix is also satisfactory. The dialogue that drives the film isn't always captured in the clearest recordings, but it is usually crisp and always intelligible. A bit of jazz from composer Joshua Redman is nicely rendered at the start and finish. As usual, Criterion supplies English subtitles exclusively on the film.

An older but no less passionate André Gregory reflects on his Vanya project and the film born out of it in a new making-of documentary. Inconceivable! Neither sound nor motion livens the Vanya Blu-ray's menu, which remains fixed on this shot of Wallace Shawn and Louis Malle.


Vanya on 42nd Street is one of Criterion's lightest discs ever, offering just two HD bonus features.

First and foremost is "Like Life: The Making of Vanya on 42nd Street" (35:42), a terrific documentary produced last year which interviews all seven of the surviving lead cast members
(Andre Gregory, Wallace Shawn, Julianne Moore, Larry Pine, Brooke Smith, Lynne Cohen, and George Gaynes) as well as producer Fred Berner. They all shed a lot of light both on the film and the creative journey it reflected. The reflections on theatre and Gregory's liberating directing style are at times a bit theoretical, which makes this far juicier and more substantial than your typical film retrospective.

The other item is Sony Pictures Classics' original theatrical trailer (2:14), presented in 1.33:1 and with critic quotes hailing the comedic value.

The menu is a static, silent cast shot. Showing that Criterion excels in authoring as well as its catalog, presentations, and supplements, the disc resumes playback of all unfinished items after player power-downs, supports bookmarks on the film, and allows for easy chapter and timeline access.

The final item is a 24-page, staple-bound booklet whose Andre Gregory-on-black cover nicely counters the Wallace Shawn-on-black disc art from which it sits across. Between a cast list, transfer information, and disc credits, we find two articles. The essay "An American Vanya" by College of the Holy Cross professor and author Steven Vineberg dissects the unique makings of the film, paying special notice to how the play begins long before we realize it. Amy Taubin's "The Discreet Charm of Vanya" is an on-set production report that appeared in a June 1994 issue of the Village Voice and contemplates the film's parallel cultures.

Professor Serebryakov (George Gaynes) surprises and upsets Waffles (Jerry Mayer), Vanya (Wallace Shawn), and Maman (Lynn Cohen) with his plan to sell their country estate.


As a film, Vanya on 42nd Street is quite different and moderately appealing. As an exercise, it may be more than that for its capturing of the dilapidated Broadway on the verge of New York City's renewal and for its inventive embodiment of Chekhov's play and the theatrical rehearsal process.

Criterion's Blu-ray offers a fine feature presentation and a superb new making-of documentary, but the disc still falls at the shallow end of the studio's rich pool of fully loaded masterpieces.

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Reviewed April 23, 2012.

Text copyright 2012 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 1994 Sony Pictures Classics, The Vanya Company and 2012 The Criterion Collection.
Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.