Fourteen years' passage is no great obstacle for Christopher Plummer in "Barrymore," which recreates the quasi-one-man show that earned him a Tony in 1997. If the play itself (by William Luce) might have welcomed a subtler translation than the one offered by Erik Canuel, its core performance remains transfixing enough to draw small crowds of drama buffs to the art house.
Set in Broadway's Majestic Theater (but filmed at Toronto's Elgin and Winter Garden center, a stately stand-in), the story imagines an attempt by aging, booze-ravaged John Barrymore to restart his stage career. Having rented the theater for a one-night "audition" for financial backers, we see his rehearsal for that make-or-break night, when his only audience is an offstage prompter (and longtime Barrymore associate) Frank.
Though Frank tries desperately to keep Barrymore working on "Richard III," the play he hopes to mount, the actor proves endlessly distractible — taking anything from an apple to a flyswatter to no object at all as an excuse to break into colorful, remorse-soaked anecdotes about his legendary family, failed marriages, and the playwright Ned Sheldon, the dear friend who got him to take acting seriously.
Barrymore isn't quite 60 when the action takes place, which doesn't hinder the 81-year old Plummer a bit: We imagine Barrymore's famous dissipation couldn't have left him with more stamina or steadiness than Plummer shows here, and this actor's nimble mind easily follows the alcoholic's eager jumps from one excuse to another to divert attention from his inability to remember what comes after "Now is the winter of our..."
Given permission — make that a mandate — to chew scenery, Plummer is misty-eyed one minute, regal the next, and full of Borscht-belt shtick whenever more elevated trains of thought evade him. Not only is he splendid, he does a delightful impression of another Barrymore, Lionel, who upstaged his younger sibling at every opportunity.
Still, filmmaker Canuel isn't quite sure Plummer will keep moviegoers awake. He reminds us of his presence at regular intervals, whisking in visions of Venice or home when Barrymore's stories wander there, and dissolving to black-and-white soliloquies to show us how brilliant the actor's early Shakespeare outings were.
It's an understandable impulse, but one Canuel follows without finesse, occasionally making the project look a little shoddy. John's big sis, Ethel, always after him to give up Tinseltown tawdriness for the purity of the stage, would not have approved.
"Barrymore," an Image Entertainment release, is not rated. 83 minutes.