A serviceable screen record of the (essentially) one-man show Christopher Plummer has been performing since its premiere in 1996, “Barrymore” presents the enjoyable spectacle of one great actor paying tribute to another. Yet William Luce’s easily digestible assemblage of John Barrymore’s quips, anecdotes and self-criticisms has never been a particularly inspired vehicle, and writer-director Erik Canuel’s adaptation probably never stood a chance of transcending its filmed-play limits, particularly as this piece takes place entirely on a stage. Despite wishful-thinking Toronto buzz over the veteran Canuck thesp’s award prospects, this exercise has “quality broadcasters” written all over it.
A fictive device has an enfeebled Barrymore (Plummer) renting a theater one night to rehearse for a backer’s audition of “Richard III,” a past personal triumph he hopes can rescue his career from the depths of self-parody. We know, however, that he won’t live to see the year (1942) out. Tippling and grandstanding for the benefit of no one but himself and a long-suffering prompter (John Plumpis, frequently heard but never fully seen), “the Great Profile” muses fleetingly on his many marriages, laureled thespian siblings, abusive backstage upbringing, etc. He sings Tin Pan Alley songs, does imitations (W.C. Fields, Louella Parsons), and very occasionally remembers to declaim a line of Shakespeare.
Plummer socks all this over with great gusto, reveling in a shameless show-off’s compulsive need to entertain (perhaps most of all himself), while letting the not-infrequent moments of pathos slip through with impact but no heavy-handed emphasis. It’s a measure of the actor’s craft that one doesn’t feel it’s the millionth time he’s played this role, but rather, that it’s the millionth time Barrymore has verbally tap-danced to escape his own self-loathing.
However, the material itself has a formulaic solo-bioplay rhythm neither performer nor director can fully elude. Canuel (“Bon Cop, Bad Cop”) sometimes tries a little too hard to jazz things up through editing or with a mute visual flashback. But for the most part, the pic has precisely the virtues and limitations of the stage piece, whose original collaborators are all thanked in closing credits, with design contributions noted as “based on” their legit antecedents.
Tech package is polished, though “Barrymore” will inevitably look most at home on the smallscreen.