If the movie creates a mood of the time, it fails, with the exception of Parker herself, to flesh out any of these colorful people.
"Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle" is a moderately successful movie of a marvelous subject. Rooted in print and carried in our imaginations, the Algonquin Round Table is the most familiar symbol of New York's literary life of the 20s and 30s. New York was awash in newspapers, magazines, smart talk, and journalists who became their own copy.
Director Alan Rudolph and producer Robert Altman have tried to catch the flavor of the era in an Altmanesque jumble of quick glimpses of the witty and famous. Robert Benchley (Campbell Scott) was Dorothy Parker's soulmate, Charles MacArthur (Matthew Broderick), her great unrequited love. MacArthur and George S. Kaufman and Clare Boothe Luce wrote plays, Harold Ross ran his new magazine, The New Yorker, and the columnists chronicled the doings and sayings of all of them.
If the movie creates a mood of the time, it fails, with the exception of Parker herself, to flesh out any of these colorful people. The real sin of omission here is that even the most colorful among them are reduced to cameos. Altman and Rudolph have caught the parties, the affairs and flirtations, and the sizzling talk that brought fame to these writers, but we have to settle for the feel of the whole. They were engaged in a conversation that never ended, and they defined the popular culture of the time.
Jennifer Jason Leigh is a risk-taking actress, and she takes a big one here by conveying Parker's fusion of melancholy and wit in a strong and affected accent that might be, but probably isn't, accurate. Dispirited and unable to make her personal life work, Parker spews out the insults that made her famous, rising, it seems, to one elbow from her emotional sickbed to comment on the passing scene: "I'm returning to my room; my anxieties await me, and they're lonely."
The flatness of the movie comes, I think, from the difficulty a young generation of earnest actors has in trying to capture a group of quick, extremely clever eccentrics who darted about their culture making fun of everything around them. You can repeat their words, but their waspishness, fueled by twin drugs, alcohol and nicotine, is elusive.
These wordsmiths trafficked in plays, columns, scripts, and talk. History has judged them insubstantial without understanding that they never pretended to substance. They were journalists, after all, not novelists, and they enlivened the verbal competition that was the currency of their era. It's not a bad way to be remembered. How can you not smile at a woman who, on hearing the ring of a doorbell, asked, "What fresh hell is this?"
The movie is filmed in the soft colors that seem right for the period, and individual performances are good. But it was a strange moment in time, and the flavor is hard to grasp, much less recreate. The very sad side of it is that the manic wit of these very bright people masked the growing fear and anxiety that ended the Jazz Age.
Film Critic: JOAN ELLIS
Word Count: 493
Studio: Fine Line Features
Copyright (c) Illusion
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