New Jersey International Film Festival: 'Barrymore' | A

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Courtesy of NJIFF


Upon hearing the name “Barrymore,” most will immediately think of the popular actress Drew Barrymore. However, many people are unaware that the “Charlie’s Angels” star is part of the famous Barrymore acting dynasty, as old as cinema itself, with roots planted firmly in both Hollywood and the theater stage. Erik Canuel’s film “Barrymore” is a bitingly profound look inside the mind of John Barrymore, the most prominent member of the dynasty.

It’s the summer of 1942. John Barrymore, portrayed wonderfully by Oscar-winner Christopher Plummer (“The Sound of Music”), arrives at the grand theater, which he rents out in order to rehearse his lines for the revival of his 1920 Broadway hit “Richard III.” He stumbles on stage, singing a playfully raunchy tune as he unpacks two big bottles of whiskey. As he begins reciting Shakespeare, he continuously darts back to recounting his life, peppering his stories with humor and drama. As he speaks to the audience, Barrymore reveals his darker side by commenting on his slow decline into alcoholism, his fond yet tumultuous relationship with his family and an unsettled sea of love affairs that make up his life.

Plummer, a veteran actor of unparalleled talent, was the oldest person to win an Academy Award in 2011 for his role in “Beginners.” Based on his performance in “Barrymore,” he may very well break his own record. Plummer highlights Barrymore’s eccentric personality with fine detail, showcasing a man who is aware of his own talent, yet bogged down by his faults and bad decisions. He underlines Barrymore’s charm, exploding at the end of the film in a cathartic spectacle of raw, unrestrained emotion, stripping and exposing the man to his very core.

“Barrymore” is a one-man show — - the only other actor is a rarely seen off-stage prompter played by John Plumpis. It is no easy feat to make a one-character film, and while Plummer carries the story, the picture would not be successful without proper direction. Director Erik Kanuel keeps the movie from simply becoming an extended talking heads session — with well-placed cameras and some light banter between Plummer and Plumpis, the film progresses smoothly. One memorable scene shows Barrymore in his dressing room, staring entranced at his own reflection, while a haunting image of himself reciting “To be, or not to be” from “Hamlet” fades into view. This moment captures a powerful contrast between the man Barrymore is and the man he aspires to be.

A film of truth and self-realization, “Barrymore” unfolds the layers of John Barrymore, making it hard not to fall in love with the iconic star.


Alex Natanzon

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