Dorothy Astriking performance by Jennifer Jason Leigh provides the centerpiece for “Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle,” a highly absorbing but naggingly patchy look at the acerbic writer Dorothy Parker and her cohorts at the legendary Algonquin Round Table. World premiering at the Cannes Film Festival in advance of its skedded fall commercial bow, Alan Rudolph’s latest dramatic mosaic is a natural sibling to “The Moderns,” his previous examination of a 1920s artistic milieu, although one with more heart, trenchant drama and deftly realized characterizations.
Like the director’s other films, this beautifully made period piece will not be an easy sell commercially, but some strong notices and a push to revive interest in Parker among students and the sophisticated public could serve to put it on the map and thus give it a fighting chance. Miramax owns foreign rights.
Parker was one of the first American female writers to develop a critical voice that was respected equally with those of her illustrious male colleagues among the Gotham literati, and a wit who arguably outshone them all. She left behind a legacy of often lacerating theater and literary reviews, tart poetry and numerous screenplays (including the original 1937 “A Star Is Born”) that still makes compelling reading, which is why “The Portable Dorothy Parker” has never been out of print since it was first published in 1944.
But because of her obvious great talent, as well as her own self-deprecating remarks, there has always been the sense of full potential never realized. As she says at one point, “I write do-dahs.” It is the contrast between the sadness and disappointment of Parker’s personal and creative life, and the exhilaration of important friendships and glittering social swirl, that gives this film its poignance.
Screenplay by Rudolph and journalist Randy Sue Coburn begins with Parker (Leigh) in Hollywood in 1937. Drenched in weariness and evident self-loathing for having sold out (many of her old cohorts would do the same), she is prompted by a young admirer to reflect on the “colorful” days beginning 18 years before, when American cultural life was defined by a relatively small group of artists and writers (quite a few of them critics) in New York City.
And colorful they were, Parker admits, although many other details of her life spoke of messiness and desperation. Returning from the war, her husband, Eddie (Andrew McCarthy), reveals himself to be a morphine addict, and hardly Dorothy’s match upstairs. At Vanity Fair, she and the other writers, including Robert Benchley (Campbell Scott) wear their salaries around their necks to protest their measly wages, and she is soon fired.
Rudolph amusingly illustrates the physical formation of the Round Table, which here consists of an ever-growing group of fast-talking pals knocking knees around a tiny table until a waiter (Wallace Shawn) has the bright idea of installing a large table around which they can sit comfortably. Per this telling , out of such a practical maneuver was a legend born.
Against the backdrop of the Jazz Age, and Mark Isham’s suitably jazzy score, the ever-changing crowd lunches, drinks and vacations together, attends openings , hangs out at speak-easies and inevitably sports its share of romantic complications. Separated from Eddie, Dorothy launches into a passionate affair with rakish newspaperman Charles MacArthur (Matthew Broderick), but it ends badly for her when he can’t curb his appetite for actresses even after they’re engaged, and she gets an abortion. This seems to startDorothy on a downward spiral from which she never recovers.
At the heart of the picture, however, is the intense but carefully platonic friendship between Mrs. Parker and Mr. Benchley, as they nearly always call each other. Married with two sons, Benchley is an editor and drama critic who, as is shown in a beautifully fashioned scene, almost inadvertently became a standup comic of sorts, delivering fractured commentaries on mundane subjects. The lovely relationship between the two lends the film an emotional purity that stands in relief to Parker’s unsatisfactory other relationships.
All this is fine as far as it goes, but the picture ends very abruptly, almost as if a third act were missing. The frequently returned-to framing device of the older Parker, which often has her delivering snippets of her corrosive poetry, shows her viciously putting down her second husband, Alan Campbell (Peter Gallagher), and eventually turning into the lonely old lush she always feared becoming.
But the proper connection is never made between her declining condition in New York in the late 1920s and her subsequent Hollywood career. Viewers unfamiliar with Parker are given virtually nothing to work with as far as Campbell and the later years are concerned, and there is a yawning gap in the story that only becomes apparent when the film announces that it is over.
This is frustrating, since a great deal of what is onscreen is intelligent and involving. Like most films about famous personalities (“The Moderns” included), this one suffers a bit from the awkward introduction of too many big names — There’s Harpo Marx running around a lawn party, Oh, here’s George S. Kaufman, Say howdy to Will Rogers, You know F. Scott, don’t you?, What should Harold Ross call his new magazine? — but Rudolph handles this nearly impossible problem in generally acceptable fashion.
Anchoring it all is Leigh’s superb performance. With her arch, artificial-sounding accent (patterned after recordings of Parker’s own voice), she takes a little getting used to, and some of the readings are sufficiently indistinct that some tweaking or even re-looping could be called for to make her dialogue completely comprehensible.
But the actress gets stronger the older Parker becomes, and her delivery of the writer’s acid remarks is stinging but natural, not declaratory. Praised to the skies by critics in recent years, she here hits her career summit thus far.
Scott, who is not as pudgy as Robert Benchley was, still conveys a good idea of one’s impression of the humorist, and turns in a sensationally delicate and nuanced characterization of a man primarily defined by Old World reticence and self-control but whose wackiness and abandon seeped out through the cracks.
Offbeat casting of Broderick as the heartbreaker MacArthur works well, and Shawn steals a few moments as the creative waiter. A lively lineup of mostly young thesps fills out the long and illustrious cast of characters.
Shot in Montreal, pic is a real treat physically. Jan Kiesser’s outstanding widescreen lensing alternates between intense black-and-white for the framing story and lustrous color for the principal sequences. Francois Seguin’s highly resourceful production design, careful location work and notably natural, uncliched costumes by John Hay and Renee April all contribute to an indelible sense of time and place.