Review: Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994)

>> Monday, December 12, 2011

USA/C-B&W-126m./Dir: Alan Rudolph/Wr: Alan Rudolph & Randy Sue Coburn/Cast: Jennifer Jason Leigh (Dorothy Parker), Campbell Scott (Robert Benchley), Matthew Broderick (Charles MacArthur), Wallace Shawn (Horatio Byrd), Nick Cassavetes (Robert Sherwood), Gwyneth Paltrow (Paula Hunt), Tom McGowan (Alexander Woollcott), Martha Plimpton (Jane Grant), Sam Robards (Harold Ross), Chip Zien (Franklin P. Adams), David Thornton (George S. Kaufman), Matt Malloy (Marc Connelly), Peter Gallagher (Alan Campbell), Jennifer Beals (Gertrude Benchley), Andrew McCarthy (Eddie Parker)

Before the Rat Pack (Frank, Dean, Sammy, etc.) and the Bundy Drive Boys(W.C. Fields, John Barrymore, Errol Flynn, etc.) there was the Algonquin Round Table--a loose social club of playwrights, humorists, theater critics, and actors that gathered at the Algonquin hotel in the 1920’s and 30’s to lunch, toss off bon mots, play word games, gossip, flirt, and drink. Most of the group--Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, Robert Sherwood, George S. Kaufman, Charles MacArthur, Marc Connelly, Franklin R. Adams, and Alexander Woolcott among them--became more famous for their witticism-laden lunches and for their alcohol intake than they did for their writing.

The dizzy nights and hung-over mornings of the Round Table are captured sporadically in Alan Rudolph’s film, Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle.This biopic focuses on Dorothy Parker (Jennifer Jason Leigh), one of the wittiest and most celebrated members of the Algonquin group. Rather than covering a lifetime, the film focuses on two important periods for Mrs. Parker--her later years as a Hollywood screenwriter, shot in black and white, and her Jazz Age heyday, shot in color (but leaning heavily on browns). More than anything else, the movie focuses on Dottie’s soulful friendship with fellow Algonquinite Robert Benchley (Campbell Scott) and her constant struggles with depression.

Unfortunately, Alan Rudolph’s film often comes across as warmed-over Robert Altman (a producer on the film). While Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle features a large canvas and a multitude of characters to fill it, the movie doesn’t have the sense of spontaneity or visual flair that buoys even the most middling of Altman’s output. The picture has its draggy sections, and the total effect of the film is to leave the viewer awfully depressed. To be fair, it is hard to imagine telling the story of a woman who tried to commit suicide multiple times without bringing the audience down a bit.

It may sound like I’m panning the picture, but in truth, I’m actually quite fond of it. Primarily, I love the Algonquin wit that is peppered throughout the script. The boozy bon mots help balance out the more downbeat sections of the story. It also doesn’t hurt that much of the humor is alcohol-related.

Secondly, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Campbell Scott’s performances are remarkable, perhaps their best on film. Leigh captures Parker’s savage wit and fragile spirit, as well as her rather unusual vocal tone (Dottie really did talk like that). Scott also does an uncanny job of capturing Benchley’s mannerisms, self-deprecating humor, and dry delivery.

I must admit that I am a sucker for period pieces set in the 20’s and 30’s, and I’ve had an interest in the Algonquin Round Table from the time I read Harpo Marx’s autobiography as a child. Consequently, I was predisposed to like the picture, despite the fact that it did not fully convey the humor, intelligence, camaraderie, and bitchiness of the group. All in all, Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle is a cocktail that tastes vaguely off. Still, it has enough good stuff in it that it is hard not to grudgingly recommend.

Drinks Consumed--Haig and Haig Scotch, gin, whiskey, Champagne, red wine, unnamed liquor in a flask, and unnamed cocktails

Intoxicating Effects--Sneaking sips, depression, soused sex, passing out, slurred speech, bickering, physical violence, and hangover

Potent Quotables-- DOROTHY PARKER: One more drink and I’ll be under the host.

Video Availability--DVD (Image)

Similarly Sauced Cinema--If you, like me, prefer docs to biopics, you may want to seek out the Academy Award-winning documentary, The Ten-Year Lunch: The Wit and Legend of the Algonquin Round Table (1987).


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I like to drink. I like to watch movies. I like to watch movies about drinking. I like to write about the movies I’ve watched, but only if I’ve had a drink first.

All text including the title "Booze Movies: The 100 Proof Film Guide" Copyright William T. Garver

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