Rag trade

Robert Altman's surprisingly leaden look at the fashion industry is all dressed up with nowhere to go

Altman is capable of anger, but it's a very specific kind of anger: anger at human beings who use existing social structures, like the military (M*A*S*H, The Caine Mutiny Court Martial) or the Hollywood studio system (The Player) to justify their own cravenness, ignorance, greed, and sadism. The fashion industry presents plenty of relevant social and political issues worth tackling, from the way designs are created with built-in obsolescence to the way fashion magazines play a bait-and-switch with their readers, simultaneously serving up unattainable ideals of physical beauty, and then assuring insecure women that it's okay for them not to look like that.

But this time, Altman can muster neither the precision to pick his targets wisely nor the empathy to convince us he's taking potshots in the name of some higher purpose. The vague, free-floating derision on display in Ready to Wear smacks of condescension and cluelessness--the superior attitude of a man who has no idea what he's making fun of and who has no inclination to find out.

Even The Player, as stinging a satire on the entertainment business as you'll ever find, allowed its hero and antihero moments of wit and likability and mystery. But this time, the director is simply setting up dressmakers' mannequins and knocking them down again, and what's the challenge in that? Or the point?

Altman can smirk all he likes, but the joke is on him: his fly is unzipped.

Ready to Wear (Pret a Porter). Miramax. Julia Roberts, Tim Robbins, Marcello Mastroianni, et al. Script by Robert Altman and Barbara Shulgasser. Direction by Robert Altman. Opens December 25.

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