Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle

Directed by Alan Rudolph

Produced by Robert Altman

Written by Alan Rudolph and Randy Sue Coburn

U.S.A., 1994

Somebody write a masterpiece for Jennifer Jason Leigh--please.

The withering wit of the legendary American writer Dorothy Parker is the best source material any American actress has had since Thelma and Louise drove into the Grand Canyon, and Leigh does wonderful things with it in the new literary biopic, Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle.. The throaty drawl she delivers her lines with may not be entirely accurate (Leigh studied tapes of Parker's voice, though some scholars have suggested that Parker probably spoke differently in her youth), but it certainly lends an appropriate, insistent rasp to Parker's trenchant poetry and one-liners. Her sympathy is apparent and complete for the Dorothy Parker that she creates--a tragic figure whose fall from literary grace and relentlessly bad luck with men fueled her propensity for morbidity and cynicism.

Dorothy Parker was the most famous member of the Algonquin Round Table, a cadre of New York writers who met for lunch daily at the Algonquin hotel on Manhattan's West 44th Street beginning in the 1920s (for a New York movie, this one has surprisingly little New York in it, relying overwhelmingly on pretty interiors). The movie draws a broad-brush outline of her life, beginning around the time of her firing from Vanity Fair. That incident cements the friendship of drama critic and legendary wit Robert Benchley (Campbell Scott), who quits his job at the magazine in a protest against the "stupid" decision to fire Mrs. Parker. Benchley is indeed Parker's greatest friend, and could perhaps be the great love of her life, if the two of them weren't already married. The moments when the movie absolutely hits its mark are the ones illustrating the unconsummated love between Mrs. Parker and Mr. Benchley. That relationship rings so true (and is so well- performed) that it manages to anchor the whole film--which needs it. We see characters talk about forming a magazine devoted to sophisticated discussion of New York ("Why not call it The New Yorker?" someone asks), we watch Mrs. Parker struggle ever-so-briefly to come to terms with Hollywood, and we get to eavesdrop on the titular "vicious circle" of authors (all of whom besides Parker are virtually unknown today), but none of this is compelling and most of it is unconvincing.

Alan Rudolph, the quintessential L.A. director and Robert Altman crony, obviously cares about this woman's story, but he honestly has little to add to it. Some viewers may be encouraged to do a little reading and research of their own (which they will find more rewarding in a historical sense), and God bless them for it, but few will find this to be a satisfactory exploration of the woman and the environment she worked in. As long as it's enough to let Leigh show her stuff and toss around a few choice passages from The Portable Dorothy Parker, the whole thing glides along nicely. But other scenes, which rely on fresh dialogue (by Rudolph and co-writer Randy Sue Coburn) to give the impression that the writers are having a smashing time with themselves, are pretty but dull. The low point comes when Rudolph trots out a psychotherapist to explain the problems of Parker's dysfunctional literary family--presumably for the benefit of the audience, since Mrs. Parker doesn't seem to learn much from his observations that she didn't already know. If Rudolph was doing his job, the audience would know it, too.

But it's worth the outlay of eight bucks just to see Leigh bring Dorothy Parker back to life in her own image. In the film's closing scenes, when Leigh plays Mrs. Parker as an old woman, her transformation is nearly complete. Whether or not Leigh's character is a faithful recreation of the Algonquin Round Table's most famous member, it's a luminous creation of its own, and one that lives on in the memory after the film itself has faded. One of these days, Leigh is going to get a great part in a great movie (Short Cuts, though ambitious and admirable, was not that movie). Until then, we can hope that this performance will open up new doors for her and get a part in a film that succeeds as film, not just as an interesting character study that offers Cliffs Notes to history.

DEEP FOCUS (formerly The Flicker Archive)
Reviews by Bryant Frazer