My Panel Discussion With Andre

The return of Wallace Shawn.

The Designated Mourner
Directed by David Hare
First Look Pictures

Who is Wallace Shawn, exactly? He’s been around for years, yet it’s still hard to know. In arty circles, he’s famous as the highbrow exhibitionist who wrote and starred in My Dinner With Andre, but there’s more to Shawn than grandiose nerd angst. Millions of small children around the country could pick him out in a lineup. They’d know him as the dotty character actor from mass-appeal films like The Princess Bride and Clueless–a guy who, unlike the earnest playwright Shawn, appears to have stopped taking anything in life seriously, least of all himself. On the contrary, he hams up his resemblance to a clown and wheezes for laughs (and, presumably, a paycheck).

Shawn doesn’t appear in this film based on his latest play, but his schizoid spirit haunts it all the same. The Designated Mourner is one of those sobering allegories set in the not-so-distant future in a country not unlike our own. The actors deliver lots of brooding speeches, and the plot is a downer. On the other hand, the star is Mike Nichols, in his first-ever film appearance and with a sneering comic timing that has somehow improved in the 30-odd years since he stopped performing with Elaine May.

Nichols plays Jack, a shrewd, middle-aged pragmatist. Years ago, in college, Jack impulsively married smart but prissy Judy (Miranda Richardson), unaware that by doing so, he was entering a stifling ivory tower. At the time, Judy’s father, Howard (David de Keyser), was one of the country’s leading intellectuals. He was a great man but also a jerk; he surrounded himself with suck-ups and expected his daughter to wait on him hand and foot. For a while Jack admired Howard’s strong convictions and his ability, apparently rare in this bleak hypothetical future, to understand the poetry of John Donne. But one day Jack admitted to himself that he didn’t give a damn about art or poetry, that Howard got on his nerves, and that anyway he’d fallen out of love with Judy. Relieved, he left her and her clique behind.

Director David Hare has preserved the no-frills setup of the stage production he oversaw in London. (It makes sense that the London production was more successful than the American one, and that the director and two of these three actors in the film are English. Since when in America have we really obsessed over the fate of intellectuals?) The play unfolds in monologues, with Jack making a witty case for his desertion of Judy, then Judy speaking, then Howard, then back to Jack, and so on; the three of them sit at a long table and talk into the camera, occasionally pouring themselves glasses of water as panelists at a conference do. The drama comes from the way Shawn craftily shifts your sympathy back and forth among characters. Just when Jack has you convinced that Judy is a pretentious albatross (Richardson’s very British clucking-tongue routine helps here), Judy’s stock rises as she stoically describes how the intolerant new government had begun to crack down on her and her father. Then, slowly, it becomes clear that the government is going to do worse than harass the intellectuals. And you realize–or you’re supposed to realize–that however arrogant and annoying you find Judy and Howard, some bottom-line human decency will be violated if they are harmed.

T he writing is ostentatiously literary, and I expect that although a hard-core band of fans will praise The Designated Mourner for condemning the vulgarian times we live in, a larger group will think it’s just more intolerable hooey from that highbrow exhibitionist. It’s actually better than hooey, but it’s also a hopelessly conflicted piece of work. The whole conception of “the intellectual life” feels dated: The film is set in the future, but its grasp of male-female relations harks back to the 1950s, or earlier. Judy starts off as a virgin, then becomes a servant to be traded back and forth by the men. Later, when Jack casts off the brainy lifestyle, he becomes a porn addict. In the Shawnian scheme of things, being or not being an intellectual would appear to be an issue only for men, as if the only thing that kept them from humping everything like craven dogs was a fondness for sonnets. Then there’s the problem of what’s killing the intellectuals off. They are themselves partly to blame, because they’re such insular snobs. But the big villain is a power-mad government whose only agenda seems to be hunting down and killing smart people. Shawn has been vocal about his belief that theater should be more political, but this government of philistine meanies seems more like a cheap device designed to give his play some tension. All he’s really telling us is: Beware of people with bad taste.

Besides being anachronisms, the intellectuals are underwritten and deliberately unattractive. It’s Jack who hogs all the energy, as if Shawn the highbrow sketched out a play and Shawn the clown took over the writing. And Nichols, who specializes in 100-proof irony, is the clown’s ideal front man. With his flushed and blotchy skin, his narrow feminine nose, his gap-toothed grin, and his eyebrows that rise to meet each other like sides of a triangle, Nichols looks like a scary blend of Hugh Hefner and Alfred E. Neumann. He’s charismatic and monstrous. In what must be one of the greatest nasal performances of all time, he rasps and chuckles and seduces us into thinking that he’s a detached but basically trustworthy guy–our friendly narrator. Then out of the blue he calls Judy a “stupid bitch,” and we realize he’s missing a soul.

And yet, before he turns completely sour, Jack makes a pretty unbeatable case for leaving the cloister. Once he gets away from Howard and Judy and their over-serious, isolated friends, he discovers a kind of peace. He realizes how noisy and restless his mind has always been, “an endless tinkling of reportage and commentary.” He sees how he’s always trying to squeeze everything into concepts–this is Beautiful, that isn’t–instead of taking in life as it is. He experiences silence for the first time, and finds out that it’s all right. Sounds a little like Buddhism. But still, the segment of the movie in which Jack begins testing what it would be like to live in the present is funny and original. Up to this point, the audience has been watching with the spaced-out, slightly bored respect one feels when confronted by a medieval Flemish altar piece. But when Jack starts making fun of all the irrelevant thoughts that clog his brain–“I like poetry. I like Rembrandt … murmur, murmur, murmur, murmur”–we wake up, recognizing the sound of our own inner babble.

For a moment, Shawn climbs off his high horse, and the movie breathes. Then the moment passes, and it becomes clear that all he wants to do is wag his finger at the know-nothings. The last intellectuals die off, and Jack heads directly for the gutter. Toward the end, Shawn has him place a volume of John Donne in the bathtub and pee and shit on it. We’re supposed to mourn, for Howard, for Judy, for Jack’s soul, and even for poor, harmless John Donne. But it’s tempting to say “good riddance.”

Jack (Mike Nichols) on highbrow vs. lowbrow (22 seconds):
Sound03 - desmr1.avi or Sound04 - download time, 1.25 minutes at 56K Sound01 - movie-desmourn1.asf for sound only

“One of Judy’s problems”: Jack and Judy (Miranda Richardson) (39 seconds):
Sound06 - desmrnr2.avi or Sound05 - download time, 2.25 minutes at 56K Sound02 - movie-desmourn2.asf for sound only