Director Alan Rudolph no doubt planned for Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle to be a revealing, insightful movie about Dorothy Parker and the Algonquin Round Table, a celebrated gang of critics and writers who were witty, and decadent, all through the 1920s. The Algonquin wits were famous not because of their good looks, but because of their way with words -- and their way with their newspaper and magazine columns, in which they unashamedly recounted their own fabulousness.
The subject is a rich one, and for this project, Rudolph rounded up Hollywood's artiest young stars -- Jennifer Jason Leigh for the title role, Campbell Scott for New Yorker wit Robert Benchley, Matthew Broderick for reporter/screenwriter Charles MacArthur -- and put them before the camera, presumably to display their own fabulousness.
Unfortunately, wearing hats well is as far as their fabulousness goes.
Jennifer Jason Leigh plays Dorothy Parker -- the queen of the caustic bon mot, as well as screenwriter of such films as the original A Star Is Born -- in beaded dresses, with kohl-smeared eyes and her hair dyed jet and bobbed. Leigh's brooding looks and pouting are evocative; she has a gaze that manages to be simultaneously smoldering and self-deprecating. If she had just kept her mouth shut, she might have succeeded. Sadly, she speaks. Though Leigh attempted to recreate Mrs. Parker's voice, even going to the effort of listening to recordings of Mrs. Parker reading her works, what she ends up with is something guttural and Slavic. This is not a voice that should recite Mrs. Parker's tidy, nasty little verses. (Has Jennifer Jason Leigh won any awards? Can they be taken away?) This bizarre voice guarantees laughs, which is not at all good, given that Mrs. Parker has many histrionic scenes with friends and lovers that are played as drama, and a wrist-slashing scene, which is also played as drama.
Perhaps as a video rental, with the sound off, Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle could be entertaining. The costumes are, after all, grand, and so is the stemware.
No, strike that. The stemware is not enough. Misplaced generosity never helped anyone. The fact is, the whole thing is unbearable. The frequent brief and pointless giddy scenes of the famous round table, and the frequent brief and pointless giddy scenes of prohibition-era parties, are unbearable. The black-and-white scenes of Leigh as the middle-aged Mrs. Parker knitting on Hollywood sound stages are unbearable. The black-and-white scenes of Leigh as the middle-aged Mrs. Parker reciting, into the camera, Mrs. Parker's verses are unbearable.
Intricate but incomprehensible episodes with men, highlights of Mrs. Parker's stellar romantic disappointments, are likewise unbearable.
This did not have to be the case. A goodly portion of the screenplay was taken from Mrs. Parker's own writing (which is still in print and still selling), and so has some wit and life. But tying it all together is a truly lousy script. Mrs. Parker's complicated life is told as a soap opera, and not only that, it's told as a middle episode of an ongoing soap opera. Which means that those unfamiliar with the story line will have no idea what's happening. Deems Taylor (James LeGros), Robert E. Sherwood (Nick Cassavetes), Jane Grant (Martha Plimpton), Edna Ferber (Lili Taylor) and others should have been introduced with a bit of exposition. Instead, they just show up in their hats, eat George S. Kaufman's (David Thornton) home-made fudge and get drunk. Their famous quips are tossed in randomly, out of context, and end up as confusing non sequiturs.
Andrew McCarthy plays Eddie Parker, Dorothy's first husband, the man who was the source of the name she liked and kept and the man who was also her first great disappointment. As Mrs. Parker has it, either he doesn't love Dorothy because he's a morphine addict or because her friends think he's stupid. In the end, he's much better off without her.
Matthew Broderick plays Charles MacArthur, a charming rake who did awfully by Mrs. Parker. As played by Broderick, MacArthur wears silk pajamas and seems surprised that she takes their affair so seriously, since they're both married to other people.
Peter Gallagher plays another husband, Alan Campbell, who Mrs. Parker married twice. He shows up only in her later life, snarls prettily when she accuses him of seeing other women or of being gay and wonders why she was in such a foul mood every single minute of every day.
Finally, Campbell Scott plays Robert "I must get out of these wet clothes and into a dry martini" Benchley. Scott is the sole actor here who seems to have a clue about his character, and his time on-screen is about the only time worth watching. Officially, Benchley and Parker were "just friends." Even so, Rudolph's movie uses as its center an unlikely drama between Mrs. Parker and Benchley.
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What exactly was going on with our Mrs. Parker and Benchley? Neither said much -- at least on that subject -- while they were alive, so the question is open to debate. Most of the evidence, though, suggests that the answer is, nothing overtly sexual. There are, for instance, reports of Benchley and Mrs. Parker being at sea together, him with crabs and her with a clean bill of health. A quick look through portraits of the men Mrs. Parker undoubtedly consorted with, a parade of boy toys, is stronger evidence against her having had any carnal episodes with the portly, pasty-faced Benchley. As Mrs. Parker, drolly aware of her tastes, said, "I require only three things of a man. He must be handsome, ruthless and stupid."
Benchley was none of these things, and Scott's performance is of a charming man torn between his genuine, fuddy-duddy family life and the lure of celebrity. But aside from him, Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle is dreck, a tedious display of bad screenwriting and worse acting. In Alan Rudolph's movie, the characters are sodden when they should be tragic, sleazy when they should be desperate and plodding when they should be witty. Dorothy Parker, who wielded an exceedingly mean pen when the circumstances called for it, would have known exactly what to say about this movie. And it wouldn't have been kind.
Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle.
Directed by Alan Rudolph. With Jennifer Jason Leigh, Campbell Scott and Matthew Broderick.