"If my life wasn't funny, it would be true... and that is just completely unacceptable."
The film version of the stage adaptation of Fisher's 2008 autobiography Wishful Drinking comes via the auspices of HBO Documentary Films, and is helmed by esteemed nonfiction filmmakers Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato (the team behind The Eyes of Tammy Faye and Inside Deep Throat), but don't be mistaken; aside from some fleeting archival footage and film clips--many of which were already incorporated into the stage production via rear production--it is basically a straight performance film. This is not a criticism. Quite the contrary, in fact. Fisher's one-woman show, which has played around the world and on Broadway, does not require a great deal of explanation or contextualization; she does all of that perfectly well, thank you very much. To put across the brilliance of Wishful Drinking, all Bailey and Barbato really needed to do was put Fisher on stage, and turn on the cameras. They do that skillfully and unobtrusively.
They did not do that during the Broadway run in late 2009, which is unfortunate, since one of the night's biggest laughs was provided by Fisher's bemusement at playing in a space that was once the high-flying, notorious Studio 54 ("I think we should only play at theaters where I used to get high"). Instead, it was taped during a later, one weekend run in summer 2010 in South Orange, New Jersey. Fisher's timing is a little off in the opening minutes--initially, her delivery isn't as smooth and at-ease as during the Broadway run, though she may have been a bit out of practice (or thrown by the cameras). But once she gets going, the performance is a treat--a charming and frequently hilarious showcase for the writer/actor's razor-sharp wit.
Padding around her "living room" set, comfortably dressed and frequently barefoot (the Studio 54 performance we saw went a step further, and found her clad in pajamas), Wishful Drinking is basically an hour or so of Fisher telling funny stories. Her performance style is laid-back and conversational; she sips iced tea, interacts with the audience, comments on the clips that occasionally run behind her. She is a terrific raconteur, her lickety-split timing pushing her already pointed lines to their comedic limit.
She spends much of the first half of the performance talking about her childhood, born in Burbank "to simple folk... people of the land": Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher, who would later leave his family for the newly-widowed Liz Taylor ("He consoled her with his penis. This made marriage to my mother... awkward"). The ensuing familial complications lead to the film's comic highlight, Fisher's blackboard-and-pointer class in "Hollywood Inbreeding 101," with glossies and chalk lines to clarify her extended family's intricate series of marriages, affairs, and offsprings. It's an uproarious set piece, full of wry commentary ("She married a grand total of nine times. Now that is a record for the board--and that is saying something"), dizzy one-liners (according to Fisher, "distinguished looking" is code for "ugly, with money"), and self-deprecation (she notes that her first husband Paul Simon, is "a short, Jewish singer," then points up to her father. "Any questions?").
The second half delves into her adult life. There is plenty of juicy material on her "stunning, layered, moving performance" in the original Star Wars, including an explanation for her "weird little English accent that came and went like weather," priceless material about the endless marketing of her likeness, and a rather awkward story about a young fan's masturbatory confession. (Much of this material is done in her full Leia wig--"it's about dignity," she insists.) Then she moves into the tough stuff: her problematic relationships, her stints in rehab, her mental illness, writing, motherhood, and so forth.
Thankfully, even when getting into the serious material, Fisher never gets too serious herself; she keeps her edge and her sense of humor, even when it puts herself in the rifle sights. Her material remains randy, nimble, and fall-down funny; her running trick of advising audience members, at full volume, to "DO IT!" is a particularly effective comic tool ("If someone offers to make you into a Pez dispenser... DO IT!" "If you can get Paul Simon to write a song about you... DO IT!"). There is talk of sickness and death and survival, but the show never degenerates into bathos, because no matter what she's been through, at either the whims of others or at her own hand, she has kept that killer wit. At one point, as almost an aside, she shrugs, "It's funny now"; had Wishful Drinking been unavailable, that would've been nearly as appropriate a title.
The 16x9 anamorphic image is occasionally messy (a few isolated shots are heavy on the grain and compression, particularly in black areas) but is just fine overall; saturation is strong and skin tones are natural.
HBO Video has a history of only going 2.0 on their performance DVDs, so it's a pleasure to report that Wishful Drinking sports a solid Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. Fisher's dialogue is clean and clear in the center channel; audience reactions are well-dispersed into the surround channels, creating an immersive experience for the audience at home. Some of the audio on archival clips is a bit on the scratchy side (particularly towards the beginning), but it's a minor issue.
"My Alleged Mother: An Exclusive Interview with Debbie Reynolds" (54:01) is a raw and basically unedited video with Fisher's mom, about her daughter, their relationship, and the show. While it has some insights (intentional and not--Fisher's therapist will definitely want to check it out), only fanatics will want to sit through the entirety of it; a shorter, tighter cut would have been appreciated.
The disc also includes three Deleted Scenes (8:00 total) from the show, all of which should have been included: her delivery of "that stupid fucking hologram speech" from Star Wars, a quiz examining the mental health of her audience, and her tour of other notable alcoholics and manic depressives.
Warm, candid, and endlessly funny, Wishful Drinking is a top-notch recording of an outstanding performance. Though a bit slender (it runs a mere 76 minutes), it is one of the most enjoyable comic concert performance films in recent memory.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their two cats in New York and holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.