As a film reviewer, I am not really ever allowed to say that I don’t get something. But sometimes honestly, I don’t get it. Sometimes the logic escapes me. And sometimes, I am ill equipped to speak on things I am occasionally expected to know something about. With these self-deprecating disclosures out of the way, I offer them because they all popped into my mind watching Barrymore, a filmed stage performance by 2-time Tony Award and 1-time Oscar winning actor Christopher Plummer. Adapted from William Luce’s play, which won Plummer one of those Tony Awards, Barrymore is a tour de force for the actor and I bet if you were seated in the Elgin Theatre in Toronto, Canada for one of these shows, you would have experienced one fantastic night out on the town.
Clearly, Plummer loves Luce’s work and it is quite evident that he sees something of himself in John Barrymore, the hard partying member of the illustrious Barrymore acting family and late grandfather to superstar actress Drew Barrymore. Perhaps less the party animal mentality and more the introspective, somewhat self-destructive elements of the Barrymore persona resonates with Plummer. Truly, only he knows why he revisits this play time and again, but now, with director Eric Canuel’s cinematic adaptation, we have Plummer as Barrymore memorialized on celluloid forever.
But, I mean, like why is this a film exactly? I mean for those who love the finest in acting, Plummer is dazzling. At the top of his game, 81 years young when these performances were filmed, he owns that stage, seemingly knowing his way around that set as one would their own house. For awhile, it is frankly quite awesome to see Plummer in that zone.
But after about a half-an-hour or so of Barrymore, things begin to grow wearisome. The introduction of an understudy character, Frank (John Plumpis), initially seems like a welcome addition, except he is off stage, seen and heard only in shadows on screen and heard only to the theater audience, and is left with next to nothing to really say or do. Frank is present to help Barrymore run lines as he prepares to audition for Shakespeare’s “Richard III”, but only seems purposeful in chopping up long-winded monologues and diatribes with prompts for Barrymore to stay focused. Frank routinely offers the “Mr. Barrymore, please…” line reading and multiple variations on the “What are you talking about?” inquiries. Frank sadly only muddles things more and more.
Filmed plays can work I think and I have seen examples where watching a play unfold on film can be quite compelling. Director Eric Canuel’s television background belies him here and Barrymore is rudderless, as if Canuel’s approach to directing and editing the piece was to simply call for a dissolve here, or a randomized camera cut there. To his credit, we are often right next to Plummer on stage, and efforts are made to make us feel the performance. However, when the content we are watching is so lackluster and one-note, all emotions are simply muted beyond restoration.
On the one hand, Plummer, at 81, showing he can still deliver in a performance he won awards for in his mid-60s is understandable, if not transparent vanity. The novelty of a stage play brought to the big screen, released in the months after Plummer finally won that elusive Academy Award for Beginners, makes some sense I suppose. However, I have no idea why this matters to me. No effort is made to bring Barrymore to a level I can appreciate, other than admiring Plummer’s tremendous performance.