Criterion Collection recently released a spiffy two-disc edition of Louise Malle’s ”My Dinner with Andre,” the love-it-or-hate-it 1981 gabfest between actor-playwright Wallace Shawn and actor-stage director Andre Gregory. It contains a real-time, single-set, much-spoofed scenario, the most recent parody being “My Dinner with Stormy,” Seth Rogen’s restaurant musings with porn star Stormy Daniels on the “40 Year Old Virgin” DVD. While a lot of people who scorn “Andre” have never actually seen it, the original did instill an abhorrence for talky, philosophical “art house cinema” in some moviegoers. That’s not surprising; it was originally sold as a must-see intellectual experience for the general public. Its target audience is much narrower than that. If you love live theater – either as a working artist or as a playgoer – then you’re probably primed to drink in Shawn’s and Gregory’s stage-inspired exchanges about the pro’s and con’s of looking to exotic places and extreme experiences to “find yourself.” The ever-present thin line between intellectual sophistication and grandly articulated bullshit lends a nice tension to the chatter.
In defense of the movie, “My Dinner with Andre” is not as pretentious or obscure as its detractors claim. The film’s ballast is provided by runty, bald, and acerbic Shawn, who listens with polite and ever more impatient disbelief to snooty Gregory’s freewheeling tales, which include a giant blue minotaur who storms a Catholic Mass; a pagan music ritual in a Polish forest where none of the participants speak each other’s language; a manipulative Japanese monk angling to star in a stage production of the children’s classic “The Little Prince”; and a particularly harrowing prank involving live burials on the grounds of photographer Richard Avedon’s vacation home. Shawn is the audience’s appealing stand-in, coming to the conclusion that Gregory is a lethal combo of charming, well-read, pathologically narcissistic, and about five minutes away from a total schizophrenic break.
But the movie does come full circle to suggest that those much-desired qualities of stability, familiarity, and domesticity are pleasing things – until life pulls them out from under you and you’re left with just raw coping skills. The question of who has a firmer grasp on reality, Shawn or Gregory, ends in a toss-up. “My Dinner with Andre” is not essential viewing for most movie lovers. But if you’ve got a taste for the surreal and you’re intrigued by the idea of separating the wheat from a dinner companion’s hallucinatory chaff, you’ll want to watch it several times.