Film Review: Public Speaking

Already aired on HBO, this snappy doc featuring the ultra-voluble, amusing Fran Lebowitz makes big-screen sense in those rarified corners where smart, sophisticated hipsters hang out.

Famously blocked writer/Luddite/pundit/wit Fran Lebowitz is fast, funny, frank and supremely confident of her opinions. She goes to all the right parties, knows all the right people, and just plain knows everything, she boldly insists. Speaking out with admirable insight is her thing and she does it well, effusively, unapologetically, much to the advantage of Public Speaking, which boasts Martin Scorsese as director.

In this brief documentary, mistress of brevity Lebowitz, ever loyal to her familiar sartorial uniform of white shirt/man-tailored jacket/slacks, holds forth with blunt commentary about the human condition and how things work. Culture, she believes, is “an aristocracy of talent” and wit surpasses humor because it is judgment, short, and “has an assumption to it.”

Having children apparently undercuts the effectiveness of women professionally: “Once a woman has a baby,” opines Lebowitz, “she is so interested in it. Do you want her for your lawyer?” Also not likely to win her conventional fans, she is a believer in revenge, not forgiveness, because the latter is “such a Christian thing.” She decries the term “car bomb” as a redundancy because cars with gasoline are simply bombs, ready to explode.

On serious notes, she decries “the death of unbiased news” and laments the “awful” loss of so many to AIDS. These long-gone gays, she says, comprised “an audience with a high level of connoisseurship of the arts. Now everything has to be broader.” She can also be self-deprecating, calling herself “the most slothful person in America.”

Awash in many other worthy observations, Public Speaking also references such Lebowitz heroes/inspirations as James Baldwin, Cole Porter, Jack Paar, Oscar Levant, Dorothy Parker, George S. Kaufman, James Thurber and Serge Gainsbourg, witty nonconformists, gay and otherwise.

Cinematographer Ellen Kuras filmed Lebowitz at one of her many eponymous public-speaking engagements (with her friend, author Toni Morrison, on hand) and, in a new genre of sit-down comedy, captures her seated at her table at the trendy West Village restaurant Waverly Inn. (Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter both executive-produced the film and owns the restaurant.)

Expelled from high school, rescued by Andy Warhol as a film reviewer for his Interview magazine, the largely self-educated former cab driver is a profoundly self-assured and wise motor-mouth. She is not a conversationalist by nature nor is she here (beyond a little verbal bounce with Morrison). Any back-and-forth with her public comes by way of their questions and her answers. Her public speaking is purely one way—her way. She knows; you don’t.

In fact, it’s hard to imagine Lebowitz asking a question (except for “What was your question?”) or engaging in any kind of colloquy. But she’s ready for anyone anywhere to listen to her expound on any topic. And that’s what she does to perfection in her two books of essays and in this film.
Whether seen on the big or small screen, Public Speaking is that rare film that delivers truly intelligent, original entertainment, with all credit to Lebowitz.