The Designated Mourner

In the great 1981 talkfest My Dinner with Andre, the playwright-actor Wallace Shawn claimed he could think of no pleasure in the world greater than that of reading Charlton Heston’s autobiography. He has changed his tune since then. The Designated Mourner, a filmed version of Shawn’s 1996 stage play, is an apocalyptic elegy for the end of highbrow culture — or, as Shawn puts it, for the vanishing class of people who can actually appreciate the poetry of John Donne. If that sounds like snobbery in the raw, you haven’t heard anything yet: The Designated Mourner is almost toxic in its facile, Harvard-dormitory bull-session idea of what intellectual refinement is and why it matters. The three characters, played by Mike Nichols, Miranda Richardson, and David de Keyser, are Shawn’s mouthpieces, talking heads who gaze knowingly into the camera as they enact a three-way philosophical rant. Nichols, the noted Hollywood director (The Birdcage, The Graduate, etc.), appears to be doing an impression of Shawn’s familiar overemphatic vocal style, complete with nervous tics and passive-aggressive cusswords. He’s so pompous, so possessed by his coy arrogance, that after a while you may feel like hitting him with a rubber mallet. As a writer, Shawn has always specialized in the secret nihilism of the chattering classes, but here he’s so busy reveling in the ”shocking” phoniness of everything — smart people, love, hope, the self — that he limps from one digression to the next, deconstructing his own dialogue into oblivion. When the rubble finally clears, all he has done is to resurrect the stale myth of the intellectual as mind divorced from body. He invites us, in other worlds, to mourn the passing of a highbrow mystique that was never worth saving. D

The Designated Mourner
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