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Designated Mourner, The
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by Rob Gonsalves

"Mike Nichols talking for 94 minutes break out the popcorn!"
5 stars

Wallace Shawn's "The Designated Mourner" is a raft of words -- self-justifying words, self-loathing words, self-absorbed words. It's an autopsy of the menagerie of demons rattling around in any given self. Hearing the words, we may think, This is the bleat that a dying soul gives off near the end.

As a three-character play (really just a one-character play), it has been performed in Britain to justified acclaim. Now it is a movie -- or, more precisely, it has been recorded on film, since 94 minutes of talking heads may not be most people's idea of a movie. But, as with Shawn's collaborations with Andre Gregory (My Dinner with Andre and Vanya on 42nd Street), the words and moods are so much more dramatic than what usually goes on in Hollywood "drama" that the comparison is embarrassing.

I should admit up front that at first I didn't much like the film -- while watching it, and then immediately afterward. But The Designated Mourner has a way of hiding in a dark corner of your memory, and popping out when you least expect it. Its pleasures are almost entirely retroactive (and it may well benefit greatly from repeat viewings, though watching it for the first time, you may want to pat yourself on the back for getting through one sitting, never mind two or more). Part of the challenge is that there are three characters, or at least three people onscreen with speaking roles, and not one of them is likable. The closest thing we have to a sympathetic protagonist is the main character, Jack (played here by Mike Nichols), who speaks to us at length and is so brutally honest about himself and his shortcomings that we have to admire him on some level even as we recoil.

The play has been directed for the screen by David Hare, who also directed the stage version, and he almost arrogantly refuses to make it "cinematic." Where another director might seek to dramatize in flashbacks some of the stories Jack tells, Hare simply keeps a camera trained on Jack as he speaks, occasionally throwing in an echo effect (once) or a dissolve (often) or bringing the lights low. The film was shot in three days, presumably for peanuts, and the post-production couldn't have taken much longer; the first bit of monologue by Jack's estranged wife Judy (Miranda Richardson) is hobbled by poor syncing. But that, too, is part of the challenge. You're forced to look past the screen, look past what you normally expect from a film, and concentrate on the words. So, as in My Dinner with Andre or a Spalding Gray monologue, the words begin to assemble themselves into drama, and then into visuals. By the time Jack talks about a new execution method involving tubes stuck into prisoners' mouths, damned if you don't see those terrified, demoralized prisoners waiting for death by tube.

The Designated Mourner is a futuristic parable (I'll bet some subversive video-store clerk will prankishly file it in the sci-fi section), set sometime after a bloody revolution that has expunged society of its elite -- its artists, its intellectuals. Jack, it seems, married into the elite class without ever really becoming part of it. He learned how to talk the talk, but he never quite walked the walk; he couldn't get into poetry and preferred sex magazines over John Donne. His father-in-law Howard (David de Keyser) is a prime example of the sort of disdainful, pompous intellectual he hates and fears. We're given to understand that, as if manifesting itself out of Jack's own unease, the majority of society rose up against high-minded people like Judy and Howard and brought them low. "Don't get up" was the common refrain heard by intellectuals before they were shot in the head, still sitting at a table in their favorite fancy restaurants, their blood pouring onto their plates -- Jack seems to relish that fetishistic detail.

Jack talks and talks, and it takes a while for us to adjust to the idea that we're watching Mike Nichols -- a legendary stage comedian during his days with Elaine May, true, but more or less out of the public eye since he became a film director way back in the mid-'60s. This is Nichols' film acting debut almost by default, since Wallace Shawn presumably did not write the play with an eye to film adaptation; the BBC footed the (small) bill for The Designated Mourner to be recorded for posterity, and Nichols, who played the role during the British run, reprises it here. Despite the fine performances by Miranda Richardson and David de Keyser, our interest naturally gravitates to Nichols, whose character exists in the here and now; even before we learn the fates of Judy and Howard, they seem to live only in Jack's dwindling memory (and their slightly overdone upper-crust performances may reflect Jack's embittered, tainted memories of them). As a director, Nichols has blown hot and cold (anyone who saw Regarding Henry or What Planet Are You From? would no longer rank Nichols among the great directors, even if they treasured the overrated The Graduate), but The Designated Mourner makes it clear that his gifts as a performer have been denied us for too long. He gives a bewildered, regular-guy performance, speaking to us in a way that makes us feel he's levelling with us; he even slyly borrows some of Wallace Shawn's mannerisms -- the perplexed stammer, the insecure nasal whine.

The Designated Mourner made me angry and a bit restless the first time around. Was this not a well-to-do baby boomer's horror fantasy -- a scenario in which the comfortable liberal elite are exterminated by the great unwashed? But consider the audience for the play (and the movie) -- essentially, the comfortable liberal elite. Will the scenario force them to confront themselves (while paying good money for the privilege of confronting themselves, if they see it on the stage)? The Designated Mourner seems to speak for balance. It shudders at the thought of a world without poetry, but it also disapproves of an overclass with nothing better to do than one-upping each other with their clever opinions about so-and-so's latest book or essay in the Times. Jack could have been written as a man who enjoyed poetry but didn't enjoy intellectual pomposity, but then he wouldn't have been spared in the revolution, or he wouldn't have run away from the dangerous lifestyle of the elite. No, Jack represents a side of humanity even uglier than the snobs or the underclass who rose to destroy them: the coward who gets out when the getting's good. Jack has to live with that knowledge about himself, while people like Judy and Howard at least stuck to their doomed convictions to the death. In a way, Jack is the deadest character of the three, and his final epiphany -- appreciating a nice breeze while he sits around thinking about absolutely nothing, a kind of enforced simplicity -- is highly ambiguous.

Upon first viewing, "The Designated Mourner" will almost certainly not strike you as more haunting than any so-called horror movie in years, but that's what it is.

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originally posted: 08/02/06 11:37:53
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  23-May-1997 (R)
  DVD: 08-Feb-2000



Directed by
  David Hare

Written by
  Wallace Shawn

  Mike Nichols
  Miranda Richardson
  David de Keyser

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