Gazing into the camera like a heavy-lidded jungle predator, Dorothy Parker (Jennifer Jason Leigh) speaks a few simple lines of verse, the words delivered with cruelly elegant deliberation, so that each one stings like acid. ''If I abstain from fun and such,/I'll probably amount to much;/But I shall stay the way I am,/Because I do not give a damn.'' The blithe devastation of that last line is as toxic, as fearless in its nihilism, as anything that ever escaped the lips of Johnny Rotten. Because I do not give a damn. Life sucks, and then you die.
Poet and drunk, feminist and lonely heart, theater critic and misanthrope, Dorothy Parker, the dissolute queen of the Algonquin Round Table, was one of the great scabrous wits of the 20th century. She wrote with a pen dipped in poisoned honey. Yet she was also one of the most famously unhappy women of the century, and it is in the meeting of those two realities, in the rich overlapping of her talent and her depression, that she has become a mythic figure, a literary Billie Holiday spinning poetic mood music from the bluesy song of herself. This is a dream role for an ambitious actress, and in Alan Rudolph's Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, which is set mostly in Manhattan during the '20s and '30s, Jennifer Jason Leigh attacks it with passion and skill. Slinking in and out of rooms like a paranoid cat, dropping verbal pinpricks that serve simultaneously as come-ons and threats (''I could kiss you, but I don't think it would come out right''), she makes Parker a tantalizingly ambiguous figure, a woman too proud to reveal her feelings and too desperate not to.
From the moment Leigh opens her mouth, though, there's a central oddity about her performance. It's her voice, a slurry upper-class brogue that makes her sound like the spoiled-brat offspring of Katharine Hepburn and W.C. Fields. Did Dorothy Parker really talk with this lockjaw affect? Not on the evidence of the recording I've heard. Leigh's performance, for all its craftsmanship, is a conceit; she's playing a punk stylization of Parker, the image of a retro-chic literary aristocrat. Leigh is subtle enough to show us that the absurdly cultivated, little-girl-in-Blackglama voice she gives Parker is intended as a kind of armor. It's meant to be Parker's way of slicing through a man's world and shielding herself from it at the same time. Yet as the movie goes on, the voice has another, unintended effect: It shields Dorothy Parker from the audience, too.
For a while, the atmosphere of Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle seems just right. Our classic image of the Round Table is that of a boisterous, happily obnoxious bull session all those terribly clever folks topping each other's one-liners between midday martinis. In a sense, people like Parker, Alexander Woollcott, and Robert Benchley were the first existential jokers, cracking wise in the face of doom, deriving their comic art from the incongruities of a godless world a world so chaotic and shabby it was no longer worth taking seriously. Mrs. Parker has a wonderful look to it, a saturated Jazz Age splendor just this side of decadence, and as the characters editors, critics, playwrights, press agents begin to mingle in parlor rooms, in the offices of magazines like Vanity Fair, and, of course, at the Algonquin hotel, where their increasingly large and rowdy lunches force the staff to accommodate them with a huge round table, Rudolph deftly establishes the feeling of life as a dark, floating party, with alcohol as its free-flowing muse. Glancing with disapproval at her first husband, Edward Parker (Andrew McCarthy), an ex-military man who has begun to hit the bottle, Dorothy purrs, ''You don't want to become the town drunk, Eddie. Not in Manhattan.''
Unfortunately, if you've seen enough Alan Rudolph movies (Trouble in Mind, The Moderns), you know that his parties have a way of never quite touching ground. As Mrs. Parker goes on, it becomes apparent that the one-liners, droll as some of them are, aren't really going to coalesce into characters, scenes, dramatic encounters. Amusing as it is to see Harold Ross (Sam Robards), founding editor of The New Yorker, utter his famous line about how the magazine is not ''for the little old lady from Dubuque,'' you wish that Ross had been filled in as a personality, that he had something to do besides say that line. As Gertrude Stein observed, remarks are not literature and they're not quite a movie either. In spirit, the New York luminaries in ''Mrs. Parker'' are barely differentiated. There's not much contrast between the mordant musings of the playwright George S. Kaufman (David Thornton), the mordant musings of the humorist Heywood Broun (Gary Basaraba), and the mordant musings of the critic Robert Benchley who, though married, is Parker's best friend and spiritual lover, but who is played by Campbell Scott as a weightless young dandy. Ditto for Matthew Broderick's Charles MacArthur, who breaks Parker's heart yet flits in and out of her life so quickly that you'd never guess he was her great (unrequited) love.
Dorothy Parker was one of the first people to give neurosis a debonair cachet. What was distinctive about her melancholy wasn't just its intensity other writers of the period self-destructed even more spectacularly but the perverse, almost exhibitionistic pride she took in it. Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle is an honorable effort, but, like Leigh's performance, it never succeeds in getting beneath that pride. The question the movie fails to come to grips with is: How do you get audiences to care about a woman who, in the end, didn't give a damn about herself? C+