Director: Alan Rudolph
Screenplay: Alan Rudolph, Randy Sue Coburn
Producers: Robert Altman
Starring: Jennifer Jason Leigh, Campbell Scott, Matthew Broderick, Peter Gallagher, Jennifer Beals, Martha Plimpton, Andrew McCarthy, Wallace Shawn, Gwyneth Paltrow, Heather Graham, Stephen Baldwin, Stanley Tucci
Year: 1994
Country: USA
BBFC Certification: 15
Duration: 125 mins

Despite being a protégé of Robert Altman, writer/director Alan Rudolph has remained on the outskirts of popular recognition throughout his lengthy career. Although he is well known to fans of independent cinema and has had a few modest successes, his filmography doesn’t have that one film the name of which jumps out as recognisable to the average viewer. Perhaps his most famous films are the oddball Romantic Comedy/Drama Choose Me and the stylish Neo-Noir Trouble in Mind, both excellent and both possessed of an inherent strangeness guaranteed to keep them in the realms of cult classics. I’ve been fascinated by Rudolph ever since I saw this pair of unique gems a few decades back but due to the rarity of screenings for his films, my progress through his catalogue has been slow. In the last few years I saw the stalker Thriller Remember My Name and the easy-going music Drama Songwriter, and Rudolph remained very much on my radar as someone whose underseen filmography I had so far thoroughly enjoyed. Unfortunately, with the sloppy Biographical Drama Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle I finally hit a bump in the road.

Focusing on the life of writer and wit Dorothy Parker and her place as part of the Algonquin Round Table, a collective of droll writers, critics and actors who assembled for regular lunches at the Algonquin Hotel over the course of ten years, Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle sets itself up as a sort of low budget version of a prestige, Oscar-ready Historical Drama. There’s an immediate attraction for me to stories about verbose, witty people but if handled wrongly they can also be the most insufferable kind of experience. There needs to be a prominent human side to the characters, lest they get lost in a fog of smug superiority. It’s a mistake to think you can just coast by on the witticisms of their real life equivalents. Rudolph reportedly took an even more ill-advised approach, getting each actor to research their character and then encouraging them to write their own lines. This resulted in chaos on the set, with many performances having to be edited down severely to keep the focus on the leads, and there’s a strong sense of this disorder lingering over the finished film. I was put in mind of David Fincher‘s Mank, a film in which cameos by real historic characters are announced by name in case the audience can’t tell whose they are meant to be. There is no confidence in the act of showing rather than telling, and the same is true of Rudolph’s film. A constant stream of new faces keeps showing up and someone says something like “I’d like to introduce you to Will Rodgers” or “That’s Deems Taylor.” The whole thing quickly becomes like a boring Who’s Who.

Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle has one of the most amazing casts ever assembled. As the opening credits appear on screen two names at a time, there’s barely a single unrecognisable one. Apparently many of them, including star Jennifer Jason Leigh, were so keen to be in the film that they worked for far less than their normal asking prices. But there is too little substance or content to justify this endless stream of cameos and the film just becomes so much noise. I’m not sure how much of the dialogue is taken directly from quotes by the actual Algonquin Round Table but the jumbled screenplay felt very much like pale imitation. Perfectly crafted bon mots are a rare commodity and a failed attempt at one is always excruciating. A couple of moments in Rudolph and Randy Sue Coburn’s screenplay land but they are lost in a sea of irritating chatter and frames crammed with human activity stripped of recognisable human traits. The biggest problem is that Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle doesn’t have a convincing centre. Although Jennifer Jason Leigh was reportedly desperate for the part and was hotly tipped for awards recognition (she got a Golden Globe nomination but not the expected Oscar nomination), her version of Dorothy Parker isn’t that far a cry from the faux-screwball routine she did in the Coen brothers’ Comedy The Hudsucker Proxy the same year. That performance had grated a little but it was fun and appropriate for the broad pastiche The Hudsucker Proxy had been. In Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, the similar reedy-voiced shtick, though slowed down considerably, just feels clashingly caricatured in what is ultimately a very downbeat film.

Although the subject interests me, I’m not particularly familiar with Parker outside of her handful of Hollywood screenplays, so I might be unfair in my assessment of Jason Leigh’s performance. I am much more familiar with Robert Benchley though, and Campbell Scott’s portrayal of him did not seem terribly reminiscent of the man himself. I appreciate the decision to not go for a straight impression but neither did the performance evoke anything close to the charismatic wit of the Benchley I know. In particular, a scene in which Scott attempts to recreate one of Benchley’s brilliant, bumbling presentations fails to capture the character beats that made them so hilarious. There’s a full five minute example of this routine in the Fred Astaire musical The Sky’s the Limit, which displays Benchley’s brilliance and highlights Scott’s unfortunate shortcomings in recreating it.

Rudolph’s cluttered direction in Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle has a couple of decent ideas scattered throughout. The notion of cutting away at intervals to black and white footage of Jason Leigh delivering excerpts from Parker’s poetry directly to the camera is an interesting one. The use of black and white cinematography in modern films is often decried as point-scoring pretentiousness but if the choice can be justified (as it more often than not can. The complaint tends to be the chip-shouldered grumbling of inverse snobs) it can work beautifully. In the case of Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, it is used to differentiate between the plot and its interludes but the technique feels too much like a conspicuous trick, largely because it is realised in a strangely slapdash way. Jan Kiesser’s cinematography feels grainily televisual in both the black and white sequences and the tonally apt but grindingly ugly washed out colour.

Although Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle didn’t work for me at all, it at least felt like a noble failure that has not put me off pursuing Rudolph’s work in future. In this case, it just feels as if the subject matter slipped away from the writers and performers to the extent that you get a very threadbare shell of what they want to create. It’s a shame given the obvious commitment of so many of those involved, especially Jason Leigh who is clearly striving to put across far more than she is managing. The result is unfortunately a painfully dull and emotionally elusive bore whose two hours feel like a very long slog.

Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle was released on limited edition Blu-ray by Imprint on 30 August 2023. Special features are as follows:

* 1080P High-definition presentation on Blu-ray from a 2K scan
* Audio Commentary with director/co-writer Alan Rudolph
* NEW Playing Real People – Interview with actor Campbell Scott (2023)
* NEW A Reflection of a Reflection – Interview with director/co-writer Alan Rudolph (2023)

* NEW Casting Human Complexities – Interview with casting director Pam Dixon (2023)
* Would You Kindly Direct Me To Hell? The Infamous Dorothy Parker – documentary
* Interview with composer Mark Isham (2006)
* Archival interview with director Alan Rudolph (1994)
* Theatrical Trailer

* TV Spot
* Aspect Ratio 2.35:1
* Audio English LPCM 2.0 Stereo
* Optional English HOH Subtitles
* Limited Edition slipcase on the first 1500 copies with unique artwork

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Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle
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