Mrs. Parker & the Vicious Circle
directed by Alan Rudolph
(Miramax, 1994)

Critics moaned when Jennifer Jason Leigh was tapped to portray Dorothy Parker, the Grand Lady of Barbed Words whose light shone brightest in the colorful 1920s. And, predictably, many critics trashed Leigh's performance.

But, while Leigh made her name making sexy comedies and sexy thrillers, she actually does an excellent job here as the witty wordsmith in Mrs. Parker & the Vicious Circle.

OK, so she played a sexy wordsmith, getting naked with fellow writer Charles MacArthur (Matthew Broderick) for an eye-candy romp. But the sex and nudity, for all its visual appeal, could have hit the cutting-room floor without much being lost from the film. The romance that makes this film worth watching is the romance that never happens: Parker's non-romance with humorist Robert Benchley (Campbell Scott).

Let's face it, Broderick shared top billing with Leigh because he's a name. But it's Scott who deserved it; it's Scott's Benchley who provided an excellent foil for matching wits and barbs with Parker. They were, it seems, the perfect match -- but the film tells us they never consummated for fear of losing what closeness they already had.

Parker, Benchley and, to some extent, MacArthur were part of the Algonquin Round Table, the so-called "vicious circle" of the title, a regular gathering of the luminaries of the writing field back in the good ol' days of Prohibition. And director Alan Rudolph assembled a fine cast to round out the circle: Robert Sherwood (Nick Cassavetes), Edna Ferber (Lili Taylor), F. Scott Fitzgerald (Malcolm Gets), Harold Ross (Sam Robards) and Alexander Woollcott (Tom McGowan), among others, plus occasional cameos by the likes of Will Rogers (Keith Carradine) and a lively Harpo Marx (J.M. Henry).

We get to see them talk and drink at New York's Algonquin Hotel, we get to see them drink and talk at private parties. We also get to see them put on a variety show, the highlight of which is Benchley's fumbling financial report. Occasionally, we see a few of them working, as writers and editors of Vanity Fair and the fledgling New Yorker.

The movie includes early appearances by Gwyneth Paltrow as the starlet Paula Hunt and Heather Graham as Mary Kennedy Taylor. Wallace Shawn (My Dinner with Andrew, The Princess Bride, Deep Space Nine) is a treat as the slow-witted hotel manager Horatio Byrd, who provided the "round" in Round Table, and Jennifer Beals (Flashdance, Bride) is Benchley's patient, long-suffering wife, Gertrude. Andrew McCarthy (Pretty in Pink, Mannequin) is Eddie Parker, Dorothy's twice-husband, who's a bad man when they're married and a good man when they're not. Stanley Tucci pops in as Fred Hunter, and singer Cyndi Lauper is an uncredited picnic guest. Benchley's real-life grandson, Jaws novelist Peter Benchley, fills a minor role as editor Frank Crowninshield.

The film plays havoc with chronology, jumping around in the '20s, '30s, '40s and '50s, interspersed with brief scenes of Leigh reciting a few lines of Parker's immortal poetry. But most of the film is set in the '20s, and that's where the real color lies. (To drive that point home, Rudolph had later scenes filmed in black and white, while the early stuff in the '20s is in vivid color.) The Round Table comprised some of the finest literary minds of the age, and the lines popping out of their mouths throughout the film are classic literary gems. The best are traded between Parker and Benchley, who flirt outrageously across the years but never "misbehave" -- with each other, anyway -- like so many of their peers were doing.

"I'd kiss you," she tells him at one point, "but I'm not sure it'd come out right."

Some of the best scenes are shot at the Table, with the camera panning from face to face as they drop lines -- many of which today crowd the pages of any good book of quotations -- with machine-gun rapidity and a surgeon's precision.

Of course, Parker's life wasn't all grins and giggles, and Leigh manages to show us the pain beneath the giddy facade. Parker, like many of her friends, was an alcoholic. She was unlucky in love and kept outliving her beloved dogs. She attempted suicide a few times; the movie shows only once. She was proud, but often too poor to sustain her lifestyle. She survived most of her friends, sank into senility and, despite her wishes, died on a sunny day. She also excelled in a field and an era dominated by men, and her name and writings outlasted the work of many of her male contemporaries.

This isn't a feel-good film by any stretch, but it's not dark and depressing, either. It's a slice of life -- in this case, a slice of several extraordinary lives from a very different time. The dialogue borrows heavily from the characters' actual words, and it's some of the most sparkling dialogue to show up on the big screen in a very long time.

As for the critics -- hell, they complained that Leigh sounded too much like the real Parker, who had a distinctive drawl. Ignore the critics and watch the film; you won't be disappointed.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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