The Designated Mourner

UK - 1997

Movie Review By Andrea Chase

"The Designated Mourner" is a three-part monologue about the extinction of things cerebral. The screenplay, by Wallace Shawn and based on his play of the same name has not given rise to what I would, strictly speaking, call a film. It's a filmed play and as such, it works, but on its own terms.

In an unnamed time and country, three decidedly waspy types sit at a table and lament the death of the cultural elite. Not as an abstract idea, I hasten to add. In this reality, the unwashed masses, or, as one character describes them, the dirt-eaters, have risen up and put an end to the high-brow way of life. But you will see this bloody uprising only in the mind's eye of the characters, as they each, in turn, tell the story of their lives and where things went so horribly, inevitably wrong.

Jack begins. He tells us that he was an English Lit. major in school and went downhill from there. At least until he met Judy, his future wife and the daughter of the semi-legendary poet and all-around misanthrope, Howard. It was, in retrospect, a doomed relationship. For one thing, Judy had this habit of hanging out with daddykins wearing only jeans, lipstick and sometimes, a frilly bra. For another, Howard is a man for whom feeling persecuted is his handle on life. When a favorite espresso bar is closed, it has nothing to do with the profitability of the establishment, it's a personal affront. He copes with his persecution complex by verbally attack everyone around him. His favorite target, naturally enough, is Jack, who's also the only one in Howard's artsy crowd that needs Cliff Notes to understand John Donne. Eventually, Jack discovers television and People magazine and he leaves. By doing so, he's spared the fate of the intelligentsia and becomes the last to recognize their passing - their designated mourner.

Shawn's prose is witty, dense and toothsome, with plenty to mull over. He also has the knack for defining characters with a few, deft words, even characters not seen on screen. By using the narrative form, he employs the theater of the imagination to tell an odd, provocative story about the sterility of pure intellect.

© 1997 Andrea Chase Air Date: 6/11/97

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