Barrymore brings Christopher Plummer's one-man stage performance as ill-fated actor John Barrymore to movie screens. According to many who saw the original theatrical production, it couldn't be faulted -- in addition to a critically lauded evocation that won Plummer a Tony and a fine, literate text by William Luce, it boasted direction by the great Gene Saks (The Odd Couple) and sets by Santo Loquasto, longtime production designer for Woody Allen. That combination of talent made the play enormously successful -- it premiered in 1996 and ran for more than 15 years, with Plummer tackling the role into his early eighties.
Unfortunately, the cinematic version is an abhorrent mess. In attempting to reinvent the play for the screen, director Erik Canuel overdoses on visual gimmickry to such a degree that the movie begins to feel oppressive. For instance, he stages a disastrous sequence that enlists trick photography to depict two sides of Barrymore's personality -- it has Plummer chatting with himself. Devices such as these suggest behind-the-scenes desperation; you can sense the filmmakers repeatedly slipping into the frame and attempting to liven up the proceedings with crass aesthetic gewgaws that seem to grow more obtuse as the film rolls forward. At one point, Canuel and co. even interpolate a double exposure of Plummer onstage, and it resembles nothing so much as a tacky old studio photograph from the 1970s. Equally unforgivable and garish is the frequent use of ultra-low-budget effects, as in a scene that has Plummer wandering out onto a balcony and overlooking a panorama of Venice that is obviously a phony, poorly rendered CGI backdrop. At times, the film suffers from glaring technical incompetence as well, as when a supporting character who turns up to assist Barrymore falls out of synch with the audio track. Although the director seemingly attempts to disguise this flub by darkening the image of the actor’s face, the gaffe is still readily visible.
Plummer’s stage direction also seems unfocused -- standing in the proscenium at Toronto's Elgin Theatre, he delivers his lines to the house most of the time, but on several occasions darts his eyes toward the camera and looks directly at us. This feels ill-conceived and amateurish by virtue of its inconsistency -- as if the filmmakers couldn't decide where to tell Plummer to direct his gaze.
One of the central conceits of the movie has Barrymore imagining that he's playing to a full crowd, and that doesn't work either, mainly because the director takes too long to visually establish the nature of the delusion. It would make the most sense, semiotically, for Canuel to cut to a theater filled with empty seats and then depict the mirage of viewers that Barrymore sees (or vice versa); instead, we're initially greeted by impressions of a crowd that are supposed to be convincing but feel cheaply and sloppily done (canned laugh tracks, faint images of blurry CGI heads) before Canuel reveals that no one is in the audience. The whole effect is weird and jarring -- a needless distraction from what is happening onstage.
Luckily, Plummer does help compensate for the film's countless gaffes by giving us a plum of a performance that is alternately gripping, funny, harrowing, and tragic; it’s as compelling, in fact, as one could ever hope for. Among other things, Plummer nails Barrymore's use of humor as a shield against insecurity, his insatiable need for audience approbation, and his partial sense of misgiving over letting his father dissuade him from the painting career that the thespian so ardently desired as a young man. Plummer also convincingly brings off the terror that begins to rack Barrymore over the course of the monologue, as the sodden character feels his dreams of future success in the theater slipping beyond his grasp.
What the filmmakers don't seem to realize is that a simple, unobtrusive, elegant documentation of Plummer's show, shot before a live audience without gauche cinematic accoutrements, would have been the most preferable choice for this movie. The alternate path that they chose not only suggests a fundamental lack of faith in the strength of Luce's play and Plummer's ability to hold the audience captive, but impedes the overall movie from achieving an organic wholeness that it desperately needs in order to get aloft.
Watching Barrymore, one thinks back to far more satisfying movie renderings of popular plays, such as Louis Malle's masterful Vanya on 42nd Street. The secret to Vanya's success was its stripped-down asceticism: In lieu of attempting to "jazz up" Uncle Vanya for the sake of moviedom, Malle trained his lens on a bare-bones version of the play, delivered by a rock-solid cast but filmed in a dilapidated theater with no costumes or props. He correctly realized that this was all he needed to give Chekhov's work a startling clarity and immediacy. Sadly, this lesson seems to have completely eluded the creators of Barrymore. leave a comment --Nathan Southern