"Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle" stars Jennifer Jason Leigh (who is also in "Dolores Claiborne," another film that opened Friday) as Mrs. Parker - Dorothy Parker, that is - the drama and literary critic who was best known for her pithy poetry and acerbic zingers but who longed to be taken more seriously as a writer.

The "Vicious Circle" refers to the "round table" at New York's Algonquin Hotel in the 1920s, where Parker and a bevy of New York heavyweight writers - Robert Benchley, Alexander Woolcott, Edna Ferber, George S. Kaufman and others, along with occasional guests like Will Rogers - gathered for lunch each day, spending most of the time trying to verbally one-up each other. It was a smoke-filled, gin-soaked mutual admiration society, where they praised and insulted themselves and each other, played word games incessantly and poked holes in Manhattan sophistication even as they exploited and embraced it.

Eventually, most of them would head for the New York stage or Hollywood (including Parker), berating themselves (or each other) as compromised artists who had sold out. And their lives were never quite as jolly as they seemed on the surface. It is this darker underbelly of the group - as alcoholic malcontents represented by Parker - that co-writer/director Alan Rudolph has chosen to explore.

Though there is a great deal of time spent on Parker's efforts to come to terms with her own talent, the central focus is really on her platonic, "best-friend" relationship with Benchley (Campbell Scott). As the film would have it, this is their strongest bond, outlasting marriages and lovers and the general decadence in which they wallow. But their respective spouses misunderstand their feelings for each other, and though they never pursue any sexual urges, it's clear that Parker and Benchley value their feelings for one another more than their own families. And even as Benchley tries to "save" Parker from herself, he finds himself corrupted.

Considering all the subplots revolving around famous literary and show business greats, it will probably help audience members to be familiar - at least in passing - with the characters here. Sometimes, simply dropping a name seems to be enough.

All of the performers are up for it, at turns witty and bright, clever and funny, tart and tragic. But special kudos must go to Leigh, who is quite touching as the tragic Parker, whose character goes through career disappointments, lovers who reject her, alcoholism, abortion, attempted suicide - but never without a tortured witticism. I do have one complaint about Leigh, however. While her technique is remarkable, her delivery is often mumbled. And whether this is how Parker really spoke is immaterial to an audience that might not be able to understand the dialogue. (A nod also to actor Scott as Benchley, who, though without the real Benchley's pudginess, has his character down pat - check out Benchley's performances in such old movies as Hitchcock's thriller "Foreign Correspondent" or the Hope-Crosby comedy "Road to Utopia.")

And that dialogue is most important. Rudolph and co-screenwriter Randy Sue Coburn have filled the film with smart, razor-sharp wit, which is straight from the real-life characters. And while the story may occasionally bog down in banality or cliche, the wit is top-notch and more than makes up for whatever faults the film may have.

At the forefront of all this, however, is Parker's sharp tongue, occasionally demonstrated in poems spoken directly into the camera and often in words released insensitively at the wrong moment - as when she enrages her first husband (Andrew McCarthy), an alcoholic and drug addict, by telling him, "You don't want to become the town drunk, Eddie - not in Manhattan." Or the dark poem that tumbles out when she is relentlessly coerced into "performing" at a posh social function:

Razors pain you, rivers are damp

Acids stain you and drugs cause cramp

Guns aren't lawful, nooses give

Gas smells awful; you might as well live.

"Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle" is rated R for violence (a suicide attempt and a slap from Parker's first husband), sex, nudity, profanity, vulgarity and drugs.