A one-man Tony-winning stage triumph for Christopher Plummer in 1997, “Barrymore” allowed the veteran actor to inhabit the bones of a legendary man of theater and movies. A “plum role” doesn’t begin to suggest the largeness of the part.
We’re talking about John Barrymore, the actor who was equally famous for his talent, his quips and his alcohol-fueled skirt-chasing. Both a matinee idol and the most celebrated Hamlet of his generation, Barrymore cut a flamboyant figure.
A new film version of William Luce’s play wisely doesn’t try to open out its concept too much. This is simply Barrymore, supposedly on a stage in 1942 (the year of his death), running through lines from “Richard III” in preparation for some sort of comeback attempt.
He’s not so much running through lines as wandering around in search of lost time. Aided by an offstage prompter, Barrymore flounders from one dimly remembered line to an anecdote about his wives to another drink.
So the monologue weaves around his past experiences. This gives Plummer a chance to tell jokes, recite naughty limericks and sing popular songs of the day.
He also gets to declaim a couple of Shakespearian soliloquies, in the film’s rare moments of seriousness.
And Plummer, in the midst of Barrymore’s recollections of his famous acting family, does lethal mimickry of Lionel and Ethel Barrymore. You almost want a supernatural element, just so we could hear Plummer imitate John Barrymore’s yet-unborn granddaughter, Drew.
Except for the overall sense of regret over a talent gone to waste, there isn’t much else going on in “Barrymore.” We are watching a performance that depicts a performer, and given your fascination with the spectacle of actors acting, that may be enough.
Director Erik Canuel takes a few stabs at deploying black-and-white footage to suggest Barrymore’s movie work (or the past generally), but mostly stays out of the way of the theatrical design of the thing.
Plummer, who nabbed a career Oscar last year for his supporting performance in “Beginners,” is in full glory, of course. Playing Barrymore allows him to go into total peacock mode, beaming and preening and delivering punch lines with impeccable timing. By the time he puts on the “Richard III” regalia, it’s like gilding the lily; Plummer has already conjured up the Shakespearian character and a dozen others to life, within Barrymore’s free-associating mind.
This movie might not add up to anything, but it’s a master class about an actor’s toolbox.
“Barrymore” (2½ stars)
An adaptation of a one-man stage triumph for Christopher Plummer, who plays the great but troubled John Barrymore at the end of his life. Essentially a monologue delivered as Barrymore tries to get himself together for a final performance, the movie might not amount to much, but it’s a master class in acting delivered by Plummer.
Rated: Not rated; probably PG-13 for language.