In The Designated Mourner, three people sit and spill out their lives to the camera -- and a marriage, a family, and Western Civilization collapse into a cosmic death rattle. Transferring Wallace Shawn's fascinating, convoluted drama to celluloid, the British playwright David Hare has barely directed it. To carry it, he relies on the virtuosity of his star: Mike Nichols. The director of comedy hits from The Graduate to The Birdcage here performs on-screen for the first time since the improv-comedy team of Nichols and Elaine May cavorted on TV. (It's his first acting at all since he co-starred with May in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? onstage in 1980.)
Luckily, Nichols does carry it. He delivers a protean portrait of an educated yet hollow and debased Everyman. In a film acting debut that makes other movie performances look like puny dry runs, he locks us into the melodious whining of the anti-hero, Jack, a "former student of English literature who went downhill from there." Jack, his wife, Judy (Miranda Richardson), and her poet-intellectual father, Howard (David de Keyser), describe both a marital and a political catastrophe -- a crackdown on dissident thinkers in the unnamed country where the piece takes place. Judy and Howard become martyrs; Jack drops them at crisis point. Together, they generate an apocalyptic heat. You may get restless, and wince at Howard's smugness or Jack's loathsomeness, but Nichols is so magnetically, infuriatingly entertaining that you can't tune out anything he says. You grow addicted to his verbal buzz.
His wife, Judy, is bleakly thinking of him when she tells us, "You have to admit that human motivation is not complex, or it's complex only in the same sense that the motivation of a fly is complex. In other words, if you try to swat a fly, it moves out of the way. And humans are the same." Judy and Howard, progressives and connoisseurs, are the exceptions who prove the rule -- they hang onto their beliefs and await mortal blows. Morally, Jack is an insect, or, as he puts it, a rat.
What makes his story stunning is that Nichols and Shawn illuminate how this ethical speck of a person can be emotionally and intellectually complicated. Jack's motivation is straightforward: He wants to survive. But the observations and gut reactions that funnel into his decision to abandon his politically dangerous wife and father-in-law are multifarious -- and on-target. He sees through the snobbery and sadism that mar Howard's intellectuality and render Judy's devotion to her dad futile and poignant. Indeed, Nichols is never more deliciously sarcastic than when Jack describes Howard's resentments: "Why, it was just outrageous! You know, a month after his very favorite little espresso bar in the park had been closed for good, they'd cut down his favorite grove of trees!"
At times Nichols echoes the querulous upper-sinus-passage symphonies of Shawn the actor. (As a performer, Shawn is beloved in art circles for My Dinner With Andre, which he also co-wrote, and Vanya on 42nd Street; in pop circles for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Clueless.) But Nichols' Jack has a unique sepulchral creepiness. Emotions fly across his chalky visage in fleeting blushes. When he smiles it's like a facial cramp; he uses dyspeptic blasts for punctuation. With every stammer and gulp, Nichols brings the script his own apt mix of flatulence and airiness: He injects a giggle- and chill-inducing ether into the words and the split seconds between words, taking their comedy and drama to the limit. The way Nichols does it, when Jack gripes about the way his wife paraded around the house topless while his father-in-law puttered around in bedclothes, Jack's capacity for complaint and self-flagellation are topless, too -- and bottomless. From the moment we hear Jack, in his first declaration of non-principles, struggle to spit out that "we ought to be precise about facts," Nichols suggests that Jack is a guy who needs facts and external outlines to define him. Jack swiftly introduces the ones he thinks are crucial: "It was a columnist for a newspaper called the New York Sun who, in 1902, first coined that wonderful pair of neatly matching phrases 'highbrow' and 'lowbrow.' "
In Howard, Judy, and their gang, Shawn memorializes those Partisan Review types who blended cultivation and left-wing politics. Then he punishes them by flinging them into a nightmare society that persecutes liberal intellectuals for their sense of social justice and for their good taste. Of course, to some extent this vision distills the rants against effete snobs that were so popular in the McCarthy and the Nixon eras. But just as obviously, this is a bizarre, stylized landscape. For example, in real life, neo-conservatives are the champions of Great Books. But in this film's social landscape, there isn't a single right-winger who loves poetry. Shawn has warped the world this way only partly to caution us about the fascism of institutionalized vulgarity; he also wants to warn us about the suicidal aridity of self-conscious elites, liberal or conservative. Howard and (in particular) his selfless, caring daughter, Judy, are heroic because they refuse to succumb to the pressure of an anti-intellectual government. But Shawn hardly puts them on a pedestal. If the patrician Howard holds genuine sympathy for the underclass -- the people who are "made to eat dirt" -- he has no direct connection to their feelings. When he calls the dispossessed "the enemy," he means it as an ironic comment on an unjust society. The arriviste Jack realizes that, short of some millennial revolution, they are the enemy, "the ones who were sitting around making plans to slice our guts out, or in other words to perform that gesture cleverly referred to by one of our enemy-loving writers as 'the disemboweling of the overboweled.' "