It’s no wonder Martin Scorsese was drawn to Fran Lebowitz as a documentary topic. Despite a relatively eclectic resume, the writer-social commentator is feisty, funny, tart — a classic New Yorker, down to expressed anxiety about cars and impatience with those who walk slowly. Yet “Fran Lebowitz in Public Speaking” still feels like a slog at feature length, when the format is essentially an extended monologue — “My Dinner With Andre,” if Andre sat at a diner alone rambling about what annoys him. Intermittently amusing and surely interesting, “Lebowitz” falls victim to the classic faux pas of overstaying its welcome.
Over 80-some-odd minutes, Lebowitz chats with an unseen interviewer, talks onstage with Toni Morrison and is shown in various clips, from “Law and Order” guest stints to bantering with Conan O’Brien. In almost every venue, she’s quick-witted, trenchant and provocative.
“Too many people are writing books, period,” she proclaims, blaming an unwarranted abundance of self-esteem among aspiring authors. Later, she cites the preoccupation with fame Andy Warhol spoke of as “what happens when an inside joke gets into the water supply.” And why, she marvels wryly, would gays even want to marry or join the military?
Scorsese punctuates Lebowitz’s musings and reminiscences with various TV clips, including one in which William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal nearly come to blows. But we seldom escape the company of the author herself, who dares opine that the AIDS epidemic diluted the culture by ushering in a “last man standing” scenario, as those people who weren’t getting laid (presumably more boring, and less attractive) survived.
Other than perhaps PBS, HBO is the only logical TV venue to afford Lebowitz a platform, and one suspects that had as much to do with Scorsese (considering his ties to “Boardwalk Empire”) as anything else. Still, an element of self-indulgence permeates this theatrical acquisition — an assumption that others will be equally enamored of Lebowitz’s willingness to flout conventions and brusquely speak her mind.
Given the number of dunderheaded pundits holding forth nightly, Lebowitz does feel like a throwback to a wittier era. That said, Scorsese could have gotten his point across in a third less time — as “Public Speaking” demonstrates, twice over, how even ballsy Manhattan artist types can benefit from an editor’s touch.