Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (Mrs. Parker and the Round Table) Reviews
This film, rapt in the life of its most sharp-witted member, the still relevant Dorothy Parker (portrayed by a terrific Jennifer Jason Leigh), is arresting in the way it captures the scattershot, messy nature of its titular Vicious Circle and its titular femme. But while it is lifelike, it also has a habit of being dégagé to the point of shallowness, perhaps the point considering how the Vicious Circle was much more concerned with cerebral oneupmanship than depth. But as it is produced by Robert Altman, whose naturalistically flavored, enduring filmmaking style could result in sensational masterpieces or overdrawn pieces of photorealistic boredom, it isn't such a surprise that it reminds one of him - written and directed by Alan Parker, it is a case of frequent improvisation sometimes intimate and sometimes lightly mundane. A middle-ground doesn't quite exist, the film being so breezy that it comes as a shock when it delves into the heavy.
The heaviness, evidently, comes from the chronicling of the life of Dorothy Parker, a cutting superheroine of the pen whose personal life never found the sense of lambency her writing could so easily evoke. As the film opens, she has just lost her job at "Vanity Fair," her writings accused of being too venomous for its readers to handle. Her lust for writing cannot be stopped, however, and so she frequents dinners and parties revolving around the Circle almost obsessively, perhaps knowing that she's smarter than everyone in attendance and can therefore relish the conversations that arise from meetings. She also begins a partnership, called the Utica Drop and Forge and Tool Co., with Robert Benchley (Campbell Scott), a man she deeply loves, a fact she never admits to herself.
But "Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle" isn't content talking about all of Parker's many achievements. It assumes that we know of her magnificence, preferring to put a spotlight on her personal life in order to three-dimensionalize her persona. What we get in return is something immensely investing, though I'll be the first to admit that Rudolph's lackadaisical directing approach sometimes skirts by moments of interest; too many characters and too much small talk act as replacements for depth.
In truth, it is Leigh that keeps us engaged in what the film has to offer us. Adopting a monotone, slurred manner of speech that evokes the high class snappiness of Katharine Hepburn if Hepburn were a little buzzed and a little depressed, Leigh's Parker is a functioning alcoholic whose function eventually turns into dysfunction as the passing years increase her cynicism. A woman who never found her true love, or, at least, acknowledged him (she famously married the same man twice, and had numerous unfulfilling love affairs where she was more interested than her counterpart), and a woman who never recognized just what an incomparable talent she actually was, liquor took up her life until she became a has-been and victim of the Vicious Circle's emptiness. Parker is a delectable movie character, and Leigh, who has always been able to find the humanity in characters that might otherwise be caricatures, gives a performance that jumps off the screen.
"Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle" is a success, more or less, but don't expect it to be comprehensive, or even that sturdy. Like the person and group of its title, it doesn't quite have enough motivation to keep it chugging along with brazen confidence for all the potential that it has. But it has its moments, and Leigh is masterful.
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.