Jennifer Jason Leigh
2 Hrs., 4 Mins.
Stumble upon the Algonquin Round Table in 1920s New York and you might find yourself feeling like a foreigner. A meeting spot of the area’s most gifted writers and artists, it was a base to let loose, drink booze, and impress one another with witty lines and frilly small talk. It characterized itself through such intellects as Robert Benchley, Jane Grant, Donald Ogden Stewart, Edna Ferber, Harold Ross, and Harpo Marx, important names long forgotten (except for maybe the Marx brother) but crucial in the evolution of modern writing, and, most prominently, the birth of The New Yorker, where many of their barbs could be translated into brilliant pieces of writing at lightning pace.
This film, rapt in the life of its most sharp-witted member, the still relevant Dorothy Parker (portrayed by a terrific Jennifer Jason Leigh), is arresting in the way it captures the scattershot, messy nature of its titular Vicious Circle and its titular femme. But while it is lifelike, it also has a habit of being dégagé to the point of shallowness, perhaps the point considering how the Vicious Circle was much more concerned with cerebral oneupmanship than depth. But as it is produced by Robert Altman, whose naturalistically flavored, enduring filmmaking style could result in sensational masterpieces or overdrawn pieces of photorealistic boredom, it isn’t such a surprise that it reminds one of him — written and directed by Alan Parker, it is a case of frequent improvisation sometimes intimate and sometimes lightly mundane. A middle-ground doesn’t quite exist, the film being so breezy that it comes as a shock when it delves into the heavy.
The heaviness, evidently, comes from the chronicling of the life of Dorothy Parker, a cutting superheroine of the pen whose personal life never found the sense of lambency her writing could so easily evoke. As the film opens, she has just lost her job at Vanity Fair, her writings accused of being too venomous for its readers to handle. Her lust for writing cannot be stopped, however, and so she frequents dinners and parties revolving around the Circle almost obsessively, perhaps knowing that she’s smarter than everyone in attendance and can therefore relish the conversations that arise from meetings. She also begins a partnership, called the Utica Drop and Forge and Tool Co., with Robert Benchley (Campbell Scott), a man she deeply loves but will never admit to herself.
But Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle isn’t content talking about all of Parker’s many achievements. It assumes that we know of her magnificence, preferring to put a spotlight on her personal life in order to three-dimensionalize her persona. What we get in return is something immensely investing, though I’ll be the first to admit that Rudolph’s lackadaisical directing approach sometimes skirts by moments of interest; too many characters and too much small talk act as replacements for biographical analysis.
In truth, it is Leigh that keeps us engaged in what the film has to offer. Adopting a monotone, slurred manner of speech that evokes the high class snappiness of Katharine Hepburn if Hepburn were a little buzzed and a little depressed, Leigh’s Parker is a functioning alcoholic whose function eventually turns into dysfunction as the passing years increase her cynicism. A woman who never found her true love, or, at least, acknowledged him (she famously married the same man twice, and had numerous unfulfilling love affairs where she was more interested than her counterpart), and a woman who never recognized just what an incomparable talent she actually was, liquor took up her life until she became a has-been and victim of the Vicious Circle’s emptiness. Parker is a delectable movie character, and Leigh, who has always been able to find the humanity in characters that might otherwise be caricatures, gives a performance that jumps off the screen.
Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle is a success, more or less, but don’t expect it to be comprehensive, or even that sturdy. Like the person and group of its title, it doesn’t quite have enough motivation to keep it chugging along with brazen confidence for all the potential that it has. But it has its moments, and Leigh is masterful. B-