It takes about 12 seconds for Elaine Stritch to drop her first F-bomb in Chiemi Karasawa’s hugely entertaining “Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me,” and she’s just getting started. Karasawa’s candid portrait derives much of its appeal from the 87-year-old Broadway star’s vulgar energy — although now she’s 89 and still going strong — which is liberated by the camera’s fixation on her combustible presence. By playing herself, looking back on decades of show business tales while struggling with the demons of alcoholism in the present, Stritch may very well deliver her best performance to date.
Karasawa’s slick production, which includes the usual assemblage of talking heads (Stritch pals like Alec Baldwin, Nathan Lane and Tina Fey offer insight into the aging diva’s appeal) alongside verite footage of Stritch both in her cluttered Manhattan and on the road with her delightful cabaret act, offers little surface appeal outside of Stritch’s instantly entertaining screen presence. With time, however, the hagiographic aspects give way to a shockingly upfront portrait of Stritch’s lonely existence, in which only her devout music director Rob Bowman provides a constant source of solace.
Karasawa (who produced the sleeper festival hit “Billy the Kid” a few years back) follows the octogenarian Broadway legend through what appears to be the last great hurrah of a ceaselessly energetic career. A foul-mouthed entertainer thoroughly aware of her theatrical persona, Stritch is seen reflecting on the ups and downs of her life, basking in an apparent final burst of fame from her recurring role on “30 Rock” and struggling with her alcoholism (“a sweet, sweet heaven,” she tearfully admits) and diabetes.
These last elements take the movie away from the trappings of an unfettered celebration and into a far more intimate and at times disturbing look at a seeming unstoppable performer facing her own mortality. Karasawa contrasts Stritch’s fiercely individualistic stage presence — most notably in a performance of Stephen Sondheim tunes at the Carlyle Hotel — with images of the same woman in a hospital bed following a terrifying diabetes attack. It’s a humbling juxtaposition that allows “Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me” to explore the aging process irrespective of its subject’s fame.
At the same time, the movie acts as the quintessential treatment of a thoroughly distinctive character — ahead of her time, yet still politically incorrect by contemporary standards. Similar to Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg’s 2010 portrait “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work,” Karasawa shows how Stritch’s famously crotchety persona is a form of feminist empowerment, even if she wouldn’t characterize it that way. Her provocations are part of character she chooses to play at every moment. Karasawa leaves no doubt that her subject’s all-encompassing lifestyle is one with her public persona. Single and isolated from her fans, she sits at home late at night watching her “30 Rock” role and receiving congratulatory notices, simultaneously a solitary figure and content to be left alone — with the consolation prize of the filmmaker’s unfettered attention, of course.
The contrast between the movie’s traditional execution and Stritch’s domineering powers create the lingering sense that she may be the project’s true auteur. As much drama as the actress faces over the course of Karasawa’s narrative, her capacity to emerge unscathed after every darker incident suggests a certain degree of calculation.
As the story winds down, Stritch seems as though she’s at the end of the road, looking backwards more than forwards — and yet in the past month, she has joined Twitter and generated her best press in years (most recently for dropping the F-bomb on morning television). The flurry of activity leaves the impression that “Shoot Me” is just a starting point. Far from a career summary, it’s a canny tale of showbiz renewal.
Criticwire Grade: A-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Sundance Selects will release “Shoot Me” in New York this Friday ahead of a wider release in early March. Stritch’s existing appeal and strong reviews should propel the movie to healthy returns, but it remains to be seen if the movie can remain in the conversation long enough to become an awards season player at the end of the year.