Public Speaking is ostensibly about Fran Lebowitz. For the uninformed, Lebowitz is a writer known for her wry and witty observations about life and culture; she's sort of the late 20th century/early 21st century equivalent to what Dorothy Parker was in the 1930s and '40s. And if that were all it was about, Public Speaking might be a tough sell outside of the New York literary world, or to anyone who is not a fan of Lebowitz. But the movie is really about Lebowitz and her relationship to New York City, and also the meaning and state of creativity in New York (and the rest of the country) across the four decades encompassed by its narrative, from around 1970 through 2010 -- and that makes it all about New York or, at least, one very significant aspect of the city (and its relationship to the rest of the country). It's really about the act of living in New York in the last 40 years and possessing a bit of intelligence and self-awareness -- and about the perceived texture of life for someone with those attributes, presented in terms that go far beyond Lebowitz and her experiences. Director Martin Scorsese is so successful in embracing all of these various permutations of his subject that the movie ought to be essential viewing for anyone either living in the city or thinking of visiting the city, and mandatory viewing for anyone considering moving to the city (especially if they plan on pursuing a creative career).
Lebowitz is a witty, often abrasive figure whose piercing opinions sometimes cause even admirers of hers to bristle, perhaps never more so than with her defense of the "old" Times Square, prostitute- and drug-infested (and represented in a clip from Scorsese's own Taxi Driver). She's a ripe subject for a film profile, and Scorsese runs with it, and seems to work from her best instincts about herself -- she's seen at her best (which isn't to say always 100 percent favorably) across this film. But she shares the spotlight and the camera with New York City and its past 40 years, and that's where the movie and Lebowitz alike bloom and blossom -- as she observes the consequences, in terms that mainstream audiences can appreciate, of such seldom mainstreamed subjects (anymore) as the AIDS epidemic, and also the ironies of the gay rights movement -- her observations on the latter's 2010 focus won't be repeated here, because it would spoil one of the movie's funniest moments. She also expounds on the transformation of New York since 1990 into a tourist mecca, which for her seems to be a dire development (though it did save the city from going the way of other cities); and a brace of cultural quirks unique to Americans that New Yorkers don't always share, which is why the city often seems so different from the rest of the country.
Lebowitz may be an acquired taste, as may the movie. Her ways of speaking of tourists and visitors to the city are harsh to the point of being offensive, and even the cute quotation of a Cole Porter song, or the ironic use of a 1960s-vintage Serge Gainsbourg Scopitone clip, can't smooth over all of her abrasiveness. However, as a celebration of what New York is about to those who love it, or want to love it, or would want to love it, the movie is even more compelling and alluring than it is as a portrait of Lebowitz -- although it will probably win her more friends and admirers, even among her critics, than she ever had before. This is a movie with a lot of intelligence and ideas, about someone with a lot of both, for people who, even if they lack one or both of those qualities, appreciate them.