Film Review: Meeting Spencer

This claustrophobically unfunny conceit begs the question: Is there anything worse than failed theatrical farce onscreen?

Stage director Harris Chappell (Jeffrey Tambor), like Patty Duke's Neely O'Hara in Valley of the Dolls, has come crawling back to Broadway after a series of Hollywood flops, intent on staging a triumphant comeback. One night, at the famed Broadway hangout Frankie & Johnnie's, Chappell's entire theatrical life disastrously collides, as he schemes to find backing for his new show only to come up against a crew of conniving, back-biting rivals, actors, journalists, old flames, and possible backers who merely stymie his efforts.

Director Malcolm Mowbray's A Private Function (1984) is a true screen comedy classic which (a) makes it hard to believe that this unimpressive farrago was made by the same man and (b) proves once more that everything starts with what's on the page. Mowbray's earlier film had the benefit of a brilliant Alan Bennett screenplay, whereas the script of Meeting Spencer, the work of three credited writers, is just desperately unfunny. The single restaurant setting of the piece soon becomes as claustrophobic as the theatre you’re sitting in, offering no escape from the heavy-handed, would-be sophistication of this flailing theatrical farce.

Forerunners in this genre, like Twentieth Century, Stage Door, No Time for Comedy and, of course, All About Eve, not only had clever dialogue but irresistibly appealing characters who drew you in and, indeed, made you love them. Meeting Spencer has neither, and plays like a bunch of actors seemingly having a rip-snorting time with one another, none of which transfers to the audience. Gay jokes, fart jokes…the filmmakers try everything, but it all just lies there, stubbornly, cinematically inert. That restaurant door keeps swinging open and more and more characters appear to add to the so-called fun, but they're like too many unnecessary ingredients added to an already unsuccessful recipe.

Tambor, who has given us so much comic pleasure in the past, recently came to grief on Broadway trying to do the musical La Cage aux Folles. Sadly, this film must be added to his short list of disasters; despite great effort, he is wholly unable to breathe life into the listless proceedings. As the titular Spencer, an aspiring actor Chappell is eyeing for his lead, Jesse Plemons evinces zero charisma. With one exception, their fellow actors also go down with them, trying to be delightful Rialto archetypes and decidedly failing. The exception is Jill Marie Jones, who, as an ambitious New York Post columnist, manages to bring a briefly revivifying fresh energy to her indifferently written character.