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.