How Did They Make Such a Dull Movie About Such Interesting People?
Really, this movie had to have Wallace Shawn in it somewhere. I'm not sure if he would have been a member of the Algonquin Round Table, given that he claims to have no sense of humour, but he is a New York Intellectual, after all, and one well known to Hollywood. It's not that I wasn't surprised to see him, it's that the movie would have been missing something if he hadn't been there. A breath of authenticity. A moment's respect for its own history, especially given that Shawn's father was the editor of [i]The New Yorker[/i] for some years, and some of the characters here are working, as the movie progresses, at getting said magazine off the ground in the first place. In one sense, there was no need for him. He plays a minor character who adds little to the proceedings, and he's certainly not an actor much of anyone can name. But still. Wallace Shawn.
This is the sordid and dreary life story of Dorothy Rothschild Parker (Jennifer Jason Leigh), celebrated wit. We see the return of her first husband (Andrew McCarthy) from war. We then see the collapse of their marriage. We see her joyous affair with Charles MacArthur (Matthew Broderick). We then see that he is fooling around with another woman (Gwyneth Paltrow), and anyway they're both still technically married. We see the attention paid to her glorious wit. We see her fired for being too witty at the expense of advertisers. We see the founding of the group known as the Algonquin Round Table. We see that she is fated to die alone. And so forth. The movie switches back and forth between the vivid colour world of Parker's glory days and the grim sepia-hinted B&W of the '50s. The fact that it is all her life is undeniable, and certainly I'm not asking for the kind of saccharine affair which would have been the kind of thing produced during her own Hollywood days, but still.
The fact is, this is never a Dorothy Parker we can [i]like[/i] very much. You can sympathize with her, at least until the end when she's just a bitter old drunk, but you never really like her. Worse, you never really understand half of what she's saying, because Parker delivers her lines in a deadpan slur most of the time. And the DVD didn't even offer subtitles. There is a scene where she is in therapy, and she's clearly not ready for the help. It's obvious that she needs it. Obvious to the audience and obvious to anyone paying attention to her. But the impression the film leaves is that she likes being a drunken misanthrope, and what are a few suicide attempts to pay in order to live that way? Almost worse is that it seems to take her Freudian analyst at his word and assume that she's just failing to deal with the death of her mother, never considering that it was a lot more complex than that. Of course, this is in no small part because at least one of her problems would be brushed away as penis envy.
After all, Dorothy Parker was an extremely intelligent woman. Bright, clever, witty. And the camera lingers over a page on which she has typed a wish that she write like a man. However, the film ignores all the implications of that statement. It was all right for her friends to have such a woman as she as their mascot, but she was never going to have any kind of equality, because she was a woman. She could write like a man all she wanted to, and her choices were funny or shocking. Because she wasn't a man and never would be. It's also worth noting that she was about the only woman in the group who wasn't terribly glamorous. She wasn't Tallulah Bankhead, in short. She did have affairs with various of the men, resulting in at least one pregnancy--and subsequent abortion. But it was that very biological difference which meant she could not, in an era before easy access to birth control, be all that casual about sleeping around.
It's not that I want Dorothy Parker's depression, suicide attempts, and so forth to be swept under the rug. It's that I would like a movie about the Algonquin Round Table to be a bit funnier. I wasn't sure who half the people in the movie were, even though I know more about the group than the average person does. I really think there's a good movie about Dorothy Parker possible, although I'm none too sure that she herself would want it to be made. But you have to start by making sure that we can understand what Our Heroine is saying before we can understand what she's thinking. You have to give us a reason to want to like her. You have to give us more than a few witticisms and a stab at a tragic life. Dorothy Parker was a complicated woman. She suffered a lot. There's no reason to ignore that fact. However, there's also no reason to make her an object of pity. It's as though Hollywood doesn't understand that "pity" and "sympathy" are different things. I'm sure the redoubtable Mrs. Parker herself would have a lot to say about it.