Lucy and My Dinner with Andre



We humans are more concerned with having than with being.
Professor Norman

I’m adequate to *do* any sort of a task, but I’m not adequate just to *be* a human being.

The last two movies I’ve watched are Lucy, the 2014 Sci-Fi action flick from Luc Besson starringthe lovely and talented Scarlett Johansen, and My Dinner with Andre, the 1981 who-knows-what-to-call-it film starring the decidedly non-lovely but very talented guy who played Vizzini in The Princess Bride, Wallace Shawn, and Andre Gregory, a theater director, actor, and writer who is listed in IMDB as “known for” Demolition Man, My Dinner with Andre, The Mosquito Coast, and The Last Temptation of Christ.

It’s no accident I referred to the first as a “flick” and the second as a “film.”  Lucy is serviceable enough as an excuse to eat popcorn, but it isn’t likely to be remembered much beyond that.  It has a 66% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and is described in the tomatometer consensus as “enthusiastic and silly.” My Dinner with Andre has a 90% rating and has been included in The Criterion Collection.  Under consensus it says, “no consensus yet,” an unsurprising conclusion, I think, to anyone who has seen it.

But there is at least one interesting point of comparison between them.  Both at their core ask the same question: What would life be like for someone who had somehow managed to break free from the constraints of ordinary existence and experience life in a capacity that, perhaps greatly, exceeds our own.  Scarlett Johannsen plays a woman who through questionable lifestyle choices winds up exposed to a large quantity of synthetic drugs that transform her into a super-human capable of using 100% of her brain capacity. The characters in My Dinner with Andre, while perhaps not using 100% of their brains, are probably using more than your average Joe.  They are intellectuals.  Both are writers who have been involved with avant-garde theater, and Andre has lived a life of wealth and privilege allowing him to devote his time to expanding his consciousness through extreme experiences, mostly in hippie communes.  He has gone “on the road,” as it were, Kerouac style, with the added bonus that, beyond simply traversing the highways and byways of the United States and Mexico, he has been able to fund trips to more exotic locales such as India and Tibet.

Unfortunately, the comparison breaks down beyond this jumping off point.  Lucy begins well enough.  Morgan Freeman lends a bit of gravitas, and it features an interesting use of visual metaphors to echo the early action on the screen.  Beyond that, it simply turns into a run-of-the-mill (at best) action flick.  Having had Morgan Freeman introduce the question–what would it be like if we could use 100% of our brain capacity–the resolution goes no further than to say, well, it would probably be pretty cool and we could do like mind control and stuff.  ScarJo, for her part, mostly apes Jeff Bridges’ character in Starman, only playing it off as an action hero bent on revenge rather than simply a curious terrestrial explorer.

The most action in My Dinner with Andre comes when the waiter interrupts the two men to take their order.   Andre introduces the question via stories of his crazy adventures, the question sustains the conversation, and the conversation literally is the movie.  No, really.  It’s two men talking over diner for all but about two minutes of the film’s ninety-five minute run time.  Surprisingly, this is far more engaging than anything that happens in Lucy.(Obviously, this is debatable—I’m looking at you Wanda!)
My Dinner with Andre isn’t for everybody.  Even those predisposed to like such a movie (art house, anyone?) may find some of the initial conversation tiresome and lose patience with Wallace for not calling bullshit on Andre from the outset.  Andre, however, isn’t your average, everyday BS’er.  This is BS elevated it to the level of performance art.  He walks a fine line.  Most everything he says is outrageous, but most of it is still believable, and the delivery tantamount to a virtuoso performance a la Spalding Gray. Most importantly, the questions raised are anything but BS, and  Wallace, presumably a stand-in for the audience, amused and fascinated at first, by the end of the movie begins to think deeply about them himself.  Andre succeeds in engaging him fully in the conversation, and at that point it–as well as the movie–blooms.  Wallace, who didn’t at first think he was going to be able to endure this dinner, once he opens himself up to it is engaged, provoked, moved, and disturbed, finding Andre’s nonsense much harder to dismiss than he might at first have imagined.  Viewers who do the same in regard to the movie will be similarly rewarded.

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