I DON'T CARE what is written about me so long as it isn't true," writer Dorothy Parker once said. What she didn't realize was that there would be a movie version.
Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, the latest film from director Alan Rudolph, is a behind-the-scenes look at the witty, bitter '20s literary icon that, with its dreary depiction of key events in her love life, would probably strike Parker as unbearable.
Starring Jennifer Jason Leigh in the kind of offbeat, gloomy role at which Leigh excels, Mrs. Parker is equal parts psychoanalytical biopic and whirlwind tour through a footnote in cultural history. That footnote is found in the Algonquin Round Table, a regular (and rather alcoholic) dinner meeting at which many of New York City's greatest literary minds presided and raised verbal hell. Parker, who was notorious for her scathing reviews in Vanity Fair, was a constant fixture at these social meetings, her tongue the wittiest and sharpest of them all. Ever the partier, Parker was known to say, "One more drink and I'll be under the host."
The film keeps coming back to these chaotic meetings, nicely summing up the bustling intellectual atmosphere of the time. Brief glimpses at New York Times critic Alexander Woollcott, New Yorker founder Harold Ross and playwright Edna Ferber provide context for Parker's story, but director Rudolph leaves the audience to fill in the details with their own knowledge of New York's cultural history. For those relatively unfamiliar with these formative publishing days, Mrs. Parker tends to skit about above one's head, dropping plenty of names but providing little in the way of explanation.
Then again, the story of the Algonquin Round Table is just background for Parker's personal story, which is where the movie invests most of its energy. Through a chronological series of episodes, we learn of Parker's "vicious circle" of failed relationships--first with her morphine-addicted husband (Andrew McCarthy), then with newspaperman and budding screenwriter Charles MacArthur (Matthew Broderick). Through it all, Parker maintains a touching Platonic relationship with writer/editor Robert Benchley (Campbell Scott, at his nice-guy best), a married man who chooses to remain her confidante rather than become her lover.
Evidently Parker was a bit on the depressive side, because she seems to get more cynical, alcoholic and self-loathing as each relationship passes. Rudolph doesn't focus on the finer points of Parker's love life; he just cuts to the devastating endings. With each negative episode, Rudolph inserts a black-and-white sequence in which Parker directly addresses the camera and reads one of her famous, harsh little rhyming poems. By film's end, Parker has even composed a "doo-dad" (as she called them) about why one shouldn't commit suicide--because it's slightly more unpleasant than living. "I write doo-dads because this is a doo-dad kind of town," she explains.
Well, unfortunately, Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle is a doo-dad kind of movie. It's one of those movies that, though undeniably well-acted, well-staged and well-written, just doesn't cut it as entertainment, or even as an homage to a charismatic literary icon. Rudolph and co-screenwriter Randy Sue Coburn are more than happy to give us some insight to Parker's inner life when they feel like it, but more often than not they let us fill in the blanks. We're left with the impression of a woman who (a) was often depressed for no apparent reason, and (b) sure could belt out snappy one-liners.
After about two hours of watching Mrs. Parker's vicious circle, you start thinking about what kinds of doo-dads she would have written if they'd only had Prozac back then. Would they be as funny? Strangely, many of Parker's poems sound like Dr. Suess during bouts of severe melancholia. What was Dr. Suess' secret of good cheer? Too bad he couldn't have gone back in time and shared it with Mrs. Parker. Press information notes that during her Vanity Fair days, Parker even gave a scathing review to The House on Pooh Corner. No doubt she found too much to identify with in Eeyore.
As for Jennifer Jason Leigh, her performance is remarkable, capturing unusual vocal inflections and the odd mixture of longing and smart bitterness that define her character. But isn't it about time for Leigh to take a step down to earth and stop playing people who are deeply disturbed, or doomed? Then again, as Parker says to a therapist, "My version of pain is a lot more fun than yours." If you're going to be unhappy--or play unhappy people--you might as well do so with pizazz.
Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle is playing at The Loft (795-7777) cinema.
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