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Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle

Directed by Alan Rudolph. Starring Jennifer Jason Leigh, Campbell Scott, Matthew Broderick, Andrew Mccarthy, Peter Gallagher, Jennifer Beals, Gwyneth Paltrow, Sam Robards, Martha Plimpton, Wallace Shawn, Lili Taylor, Keith Carradine, Tom Mcgowan. (1994)

REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Jan. 20, 1995

We all think we know her: Dorothy Parker, an American icon, urbane wit, high priestess of the bon mot, modern template for the self-destructive female artist. Yet even those who knew her can't agree about her character; various observations and reminiscences all reflect different aspects of her personality or, maybe, only the perspectives visible to each separate observer. Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle accomplishes the phenomenal. It re-creates the flavor of the 1920s glitterati gang with such vivid and loving detail that you feel like the proverbial fly on the Algonquin walls or a dinner roll fallen out of view underneath the famed Round Table. But also with such a prized vantage point comes the pitfalls of a certain auditory realism. Characters are not introduced via classic storytelling setups. All the characters refer to each other in familiar terms and it is often difficult to figure out who each of these famous players is. This is true even for the viewer who has a working knowledge of the Algonquin Round Table group, though the resembles between this ensemble group of actors and the real personages they portray here is astonishing. Though, as an audience, we may be sometimes muddled regarding who's who, these characters interact and address each other much as they might have in real life. Also relevant here is that so many of the “best of” Dorothy Parker's quips were muttered sotto voce -- under her breath. They were heard by the person sitting next to her, but the “fly on the wall” might just barely hear what she said. The lush-soaked drawl of her latter years often makes accurate understanding even harder. But, once again, the total effect is for the film to seem more like “real life” than a deliberately constructed movie. The movie begins with Parker at work in Hollywood as she enters into an extended flashback to her younger years in New York. Her recollections are interspersed with occasional poetic recitations that are delivered directly to the audience, more like a conversation than a presentation. The film could be faulted for what it leaves out, primarily Parker's deep political involvements and her Hollywood years and beyond. Yet Rudolph's lovingly crafted movie never seems aimed at biography. What it tries to do it does so extraordinarily well -- and that is to capture a moment in time and look more closely at the scars hidden underneath the blue ribbons gaily camouflaging Parker's slit wrists. Jennifer Jason Leigh's performance is so incredible that witnessing it is reason enough to take a look at this movie.

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