Alan Rudolph has a sneaky, clever notion in co-writing and directing this look at the intimidating wits, led by writer, poet and critic Dorothy Parker (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who gathered daily for lunch and literate bitching at the round table in Manhattan’s Algonquin Hotel during the 1920s. Rudolph reminds us how young and vulnerable they were before legend set them in stone. The scenes around the table with a group that includes humorist Robert Benchley (Campbell Scott), author Edna Ferber (Lili Taylor) and critic Alexander Woollcott (Tom McGowan) hiding their desperation to top one another with a thin veneer of sophistication are lively and unexpectedly touching.
The rest falls curiously flat. The film tries to jam everything in. Characters show up, announce their names — Robert Sherwood, Ruth Hale, Harold Ross etc. — and depart. And the domestic drama is deadly, concentrating on Parker’s alcoholism, affairs, bad marriages and her unrequited passion for Benchley, nicely played by Scott. Leigh is a fine, acute actress, much given to research; she listened to recordings of the real Parker’s voice and duplicates her affected, clipped speech. The verisimilitude is daunting, but it ties a tin can to Leigh’s performance; you can’t get past it. The film wants to make a case for Parker as the first modern woman. It gets the look and the attitude right, but it can’t find her heart.