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Thursday, May 16, 2013

BARRYMORE -- Blu-Ray review by porfle

"We [the Barrymores and the Drews] were the theater's royal family, and I was the clown prince."

If you're a younger viewer who knows "The Great Profile" John Barrymore only as Drew's granddad--if at all--then the melancholy, almost ghostly nostalgia stirred by the opening moments of BARRYMORE (2012) may be lost on you. Those with a fond affection for both old Hollywood and the Shakespearean stage may find themselves getting wistful right away. But when Christopher Plummer takes the stage in the title role and goes to work, his bravura performance of this stunningly well-written play should captivate anyone who sees it.

A belated filmization of a 1997 Tony award-winning Broadway success that has reportedly been improved with the retelling, the story begins with an over-the-hill Barrymore, circa 1942, hiring a theater in which to rehearse for a backer's audition that will hopefully return him to the classical stage as King Richard III in "Hamlet." From his first moments onscreen Plummer is a joy, capturing Barrymore's voice and physical traits while bringing his own sense of humor and fun to the role. While guzzling the booze that would ultimately destroy him, the already-tipsy actor elegantly recites crude limericks and bawdy anecdotes with a naturalistic gusto and at times almost giddy enthusiasm that one can't help but share.

The first segment is filmed before a live theater audience, whom we understand is a figment of the egotistical actor's imagination as he awaits the arrival of his young prompter, Frank (John Plumpis, 'TIL THERE WAS YOU). Plummer so chummily interacts with this audience that one misses their delighted reactions during the later scenes in which Frank's presence prevents Barrymore from "imagining" them.

Still, Plummer is never less than riveting even when performing to an empty house, and the script by Erik Canuel (screen adaptation) and William Luce (original play) is brimming with a non-stop barrage of hilarious one-liners which he delivers with expert timing. Barrymore constantly confounds the impatient Frank by taking time out to reminisce about his youth, growing up with brother Lionel and sister Ethel, surviving an equally alcoholic father, and serving as a political cartoonist for the Evening Journal before eventually settling into the family business of acting, which he derides as "a scavenger profession."

Every time it looks as though the aging thespian is getting down to work, a certain line from Shakespeare brings on a fresh wave of memories. What seems to bring him up short more than anything else are his recollections regarding women, particularly his four ex-wives ("For 20 years, Katherine and I were ecstatically happy--and then we met"). He also regails us with tales of less than complimentary reviews from the likes of Louella Parsons and George Bernard Shaw, and the dubious account of how one of his departed friends was such a lush that when they tried to cremate his body the funeral home exploded. More laughs come in the form of exchanges such as this between Jack and the brutally frank Frank:

"Frank, do you think my fans will remember me when I'm a has-been?"

"Of course they do, Mr. Barrymore."

But behind all the often black humor is the unspoken tragedy of Barrymore's extreme alcoholism, how it has ruined his life and the lives of his steadily decreasing number of old friends, and how it has rendered him unfit to perform his beloved Shakespeare before an audience without requiring a prompter's assistance to remember every single line.

It's deeply satisfying to watch an actor so talented at both expertly interpreting Shakespeare and bringing to life a profane, drunken, irreverent figure of fascination such as Barrymore as though the man himself were speaking directly to us. Whenever the Bard's words serve to express the lead character's own feelings, Christopher Plummer delivers these timeworn quotes with a depth and passion that gives them new life and meaning.

The Blu-Ray from RLJ Entertainment is in 1.78:1 high-definition widescreen with Dolby 5.1 sound. The bonus feature is an hour-long documentary, "Backstage with Barrymore", which provides a glowing, heartfelt history of the play and film with appearances from co-stars Helen Mirren, Julie Andrews, and Zoe Caldwell.

For something that's basically a one-man play (Frank is a shadowy presence whom we never see clearly) committed to film, BARRYMORE never suffers from staginess thanks to Erik Canuel's impeccable direction and some really gorgeous, richly-hued cinematography. As for Plummer, he's nothing less than exhilarating--watching him perform this role seems so much like a guilty indulgence that you'd almost think it's fattening.

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