Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (United States, 1994)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

"[Dorothy Parker] was a groundbreaker in a lot of ways. In her day, to write captions and fashion stories was about all that a woman writer could aspire to. Dorothy had the respect of her peers. But she was also a critic, and I think she worked against herself as an artist in that capacity. We show her once with a note in her typewriter -- 'Oh God, please let me write like a man.' And what we really remember her for is how much like a woman she wrote."
- Randy Sue Coburn, co-writer, Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle

Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle is set primarily against the backdrop of the roaring '20s, with critic/poet/writer Dorothy Parker (Jennifer Jason Leigh) as the centerpiece. Parker was by far the best known female member of the famed Algonquin Round Table -- a collection of journalists, actors, writers, and other artists who gathered daily for lunch at a 44th Street Manhattan hotel. Also included in the membership of this exclusive circle were Robert Benchley (Campbell Scott), Harold Ross (Sam Robards), and Charles MacArthur (Matthew Broderick). Among their successes, the Algonquin clique could claim Pulitzer Prizes, Oscars, successful stage shows, and bestselling books. To the outside world, they were celebrities; to some on the inside, they were "just a bunch of loudmouths showing off."

Dorothy Parker is perhaps best remembered for her tart sayings and pithy turns of phrase, and that's the tone that this movie initially adopts -- playful and clipped. However, as the screenplay delves beneath the surface of its lead character's personality, a grim, more serious mood becomes pervasive, turning Dorothy's witticisms into self-contemptuous jabs or cries for help.

Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle is uncomfortable, as we in the audience are forced to watch someone emotionally drowning without being allowed to throw a life preserver. If, as is asserted, the source of all great literature is "an upheaved soul", then Parker had an endless supply of inspiration, especially as her life became progressively more dissolute (sex and alcohol have always been supposed antidotes to empty existences). Jennifer Jason Leigh, giving the best performance (to date) of a varied career, is tremendous, drawling her lines in a Katherine Hepburn-like voice and expressing pain as much through her eyes as through words and body language. Oscars have been awarded for less.

One of the most difficult tasks for a film maker is to blend comedy seamlessly into a drama. I'm not talking about inserting a few pointed jokes here and there, but incorporating the humor as an integral part of the story -- one that makes the serious elements all the more poignant. Director Alan Rudolph (The Moderns, Equinox) succeeds, creating in Mrs. Parker a picture to both laugh and cry through.

Visually, this is the most interesting and ambitious of Rudolph's projects. The film opens in 1937, with Parker reminiscing about the previous decade. The bulk of the movie is shot in color, but various flash-forwards -- to '37, '45, and '58 -- are photographed in black-and-white. It's a memorable way to structure a motion picture.

Arguments can be made about the historical accuracy of the film. Many of the events related herein are based on Parker's own statements, and she was notorious for exaggerating -- if not outright lying -- about her past. Regardless of how faithfully it records its title character's life, however, Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle is a top-notch movie. Everything is in place -- a striking lead performance, solid supporting players, a well-written script, and, above all, expert direction to merge the ingredients. In a case like this, "truth" may not be the most important factor to consider in the overall evaluation.

Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (United States, 1994)

Run Time: 2:04
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Situations, Profanity, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2:35:1