In Barrymore, the levels of theatricality quickly multiply. Based on the 1996 William Luce play of the same name, Erik Canuel’s film stars Christopher Plummer as legendary actor John Barrymore, delivering what amounts to an 83-minute monologue while ostensibly rehearsing lines for a (fictionalized) stage performance. And just as Luce’s play is about an aging thespian trying to recapture past glories, Plummer, who starred in the original Broadway production of Barrymore back in 1997 and won a Tony for the role, is attempting to recreate his own previous triumphs.
But all this meta-theatrical play, along with Canuel’s efforts to cut away from the stage and open up the film (flashbacks, opening and closing sequences in which a movie screen shows clips from John Barrymore flicks) fail to enliven the central content of the film, which is all (or almost all) Plummer. Taking place in 1942, and based on a fictional event in which a close-to-death Barrymore, desperate to revive his “legitimate” career, rented out a theater for a one-off performance of Richard III, the film consists of the actor trying to run lines with a young man named Frank (John Plumpis), but instead getting lost on innumerable tangents, delivering what at times amounts to a comedy act, and at others a self-pitying bout of self-reflection.
Frank’s continual exasperation at Barrymore’s inability to stay on task is delivered with an over-the-top hamminess that’s itself exasperating, not unlike Plummer’s manic-depressive performance, a nonstop amalgam of mediocre wordplay delivered with a smirking irony and heavy-handed familial reminiscences put over with unpalatable mopiness. Plummer is certainly game, and he recites Luce’s lines with all the gusto he can manage, as well as capturing something of the fatigue engendered by a life wasted by alcohol, but there’s always the sense that the campy lines are beneath an actor of his intelligence and so, in going along with them, he has little choice but to camp it up himself. Rather than invigorate, however, the endless repetitions of Luce’s monologue grow quickly tiresome and, for all his half-baked efforts at expanding the context of his film, Canuel fails to deliver us from the inevitable hermeticism of the material.