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‘Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle’ (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 23, 1994

"A bunch of loudmouths showing off" -- that's how writer Dorothy Parker once described the bumptious circle of playwrights, critics, editors, wits and nitwits who made up the famed Algonquin Round Table. And from what director Alan Rudolph shows us in "Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle," his immensely entertaining look at the writer and her contemporaries, these guys sure loved to hear themselves talk.

It was an era of speak-easies and bathtub gin, when Broadway was in full flower and New York was abuzz with competing newspaper and magazine writers. On most days, the cream of this irreverent crop of scribblers -- among them Alexander Woollcott, George S. Kaufman, Marc Connelly, Robert Benchley and Harold Ross, who was making plans for his new magazine, the New Yorker -- would gather for lunch around a huge round table at Manhattan's Algonquin Hotel to discuss their various projects and pepper each other with loving insults.

In Rudolph's account, Parker, played with skinless sensitivity by Jennifer Jason Leigh, is the precocious little girl who hangs out with the boys, trying to match them drink for drink and quip for quip. During the late '20s, when the bulk of the story is set, Parker worked as a drama critic -- she was the wisenheimer who famously described Katharine Hepburn's emotional range as "running the gamut from A to B" -- and an author of light poetry. Occasionally, she was able to produce something more substantial -- like her short story "Big Blonde" -- but the birthing process was long and torturous, and even then she seemed to find her own writing voice too sappy and emotional -- too much like a woman's.

Though Parker wanted to write like a man, she didn't necessarily want to be one. And yet she didn't take much pleasure in being a woman either -- especially in the area of romance. Her husband, Eddie (Andrew McCarthy), is a worthless zero who manages to kick his morphine addiction by switching to booze, causing Parker to remark, "You don't want to become the town drunk, Eddie. Not in Manhattan."

Mercifully, Eddie soon takes a powder and Parker begins a passionate affair with Charlie MacArthur (Matthew Broderick), a cocky reporter from Chicago. Though a tough cookie on the surface, Parker can't help dreaming of a white knight to sweep her off her feet. During these scenes, Leigh lets us see Parker's giddy, girlish side; it's the only time that we get to see her light up and laugh. But MacArthur is no white knight, and after she catches him in bed with another woman, their romance is over.

The end of Parker's affair with MacArthur is a major turning point in the film. Though she was never a happy woman, the fatigue of the jaded sophisticate that had been her stock in trade as a writer seemed to deepen into genuine despair, accompanied by numerous suicide attempts and an even greater dependence on drink. While all this is taking place, Rudolph keeps the heady New York scene swirling feverishly around his characters in what looks like a nonstop party. A large number of players compete for our attention here, but one never gets the feeling that Rudolph is merely trying to impress us with his cast list as, say, Robert Altman tries to do in "Ready to Wear."

As Parker, Leigh gives a disturbing, emotionally raw performance. Equally impressive is Campbell Scott, who gives an unexpectedly entertaining, true-to-life impersonation of Robert Benchley. A writer who eventually became a star clown in the movies, Benchley was perhaps Parker's one true love. Though both were married, they had a special bond; he called her Mrs. Parker and she called him Mr. Benchley -- or, more affectionately, Fred. They seemed to be thoroughly smitten with one another, and yet a romance never blossomed, perhaps because, as Parker remarks, she was afraid "it wouldn't come out right."

As the movie progresses, Parker slides deeper and deeper into depression and alcoholism. Despite her miseries, this is a very funny movie. For once, Rudolph's floating camera and his fondness for overlapping dialogue is perfectly matched to his material, allowing him to capture the off-the-cuff witticisms of his characters. The Dorothy Parker that Leigh and Rudolph present isn't one-dimensional. In addition to being savagely funny, she is also capable of great elegance and genuine insight. At one point, a young admirer remarks that her days at the Round Table must have been "colorful." The movie is that and more -- inventive, hilarious and, in its own sneaky way, moving.

"Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle" is rated R for language, brief nudity and adult situations.

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