Film Review: Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994)


If you want to win an Oscar in acting category it helps if you play real life character in a biopic. It is difficult to know whether Jennifer Jason Leigh was guided by this fact, but it is quite certain that she had invested a lot of effort while playing the protagonist of Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, 1994 film directed by Alan Rudolph, which in the end resulted in an Oscar-deserving performance.

Leigh in the film plays Dorothy Parker, American writer best known for her poetry, Classic Hollywood screenplays, satire and being one of the more colourful personalities of 20th Century American literature. The plot, framed by the scenes Parker as Hollywood screenwriter and elderly woman remembering her old days, begins in 1919 when she works as drama critic for Vanity Fair magazine. Caustic style of her reviews has her fired and her colleague and friend, humorist Robert Benchley (played by Campbell Scott) decides to quit the magazine as a gesture of solidarity. Two of them find temporary refuge in Algonquin Hotel in Manhattan, where the huge round table would become popular gathering place of New York City’s most celebrated actors, journalists and writers. Parker is the only woman among its founding members, but she excels by her wit and hard drinking and the Algonquin Round Table, together with her, becomes one of the most celebrated cultural institution in the city during Roaring Twenties while she would become one of the top writers in newly founded and increasingly influential The New Yorker magazine. During those years Parker has to deal with failed marriage with drug abusing Eddie Parker (played by Andrew McCarthy), heart-breaking affair with Chicago journalist and playwright Charles Macarthur (played by Matthew Broderick) and the effect large amounts of alcohol would have on her health and career.

Jennifer Jason Leigh is one of the most remarkable actresses of her generations, and in 1980s and 1990s she was more than willing to display her talent in often thankless, controversial and very demanding roles. In case of Mrs. Parker she has approached the task with great vigour, which reflected in reading all of Parker’s works, carefully studying her surviving sound recordings in order to perfectly mimic her speech and, last but not least, staying in character during the shoot. The result of this effort is quite impressive. Leigh plays character which is the same yet very different in various stages of her life – at the beginning she is young, intelligent and charming woman and later, after being affected by alcohol, romantic failures and suicide attempts, becomes jaded and turns into pathetic shadow of her former self.

Leigh’s great performance, however, isn’t enough to make this film good. The main problem is conceptual mistakes by director Alan Rudolph, known as one of the disciples of Robert Altman, famous film maker who produced the film. Rudolph at the same time wanted to make conventional biopic, yet at the same time pay something of a homage to Algonquin Round Table and, consequently, turn this film into ensemble piece. This results not only in too many characters, but also in those characters not meaning much to the audience unfamiliar with cultural elite in New York City a century ago. Too many major historical personalities appear too briefly in what are essentially glorified cameos. Another problem, which Rudolph became apparently became aware of, is that the work of a writer is very difficult to present in feature film, especially if such work happen to be in the realm of Broadway reviews. Rudolph tries to solve this problem by having Parker recite her poems as some sort of Greek chorus. Rudolph style of direction, on the other hand, results in film being overlong and the lack of proper closure doesn’t help. What makes Mrs. Parker even worse is Rudolph and his co-writer Randy Sue Coburn refusing to address Parker’s left-wing politics and the way such views led to her blacklisting in Hollywood during McCarthy era. Anachronistic music score by Mark Isham makes Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle even more disappointing. Although Leigh has delivered great performance, this film should be recommended only to her most loyal fans.

RATING: 4/10 (+)

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