Ready to scorn

Kansas City is Robert Altman's best movie in years--but does anyone care anymore?

Here's a dirty little secret about film critics that won't make an amusing bon mot at the next National Society of Film Critics dinner, unless you want Pauline Kael to introduce her cane to your head: Critics are herd animals by instinct. There are disagreements, to be sure; the next time you're seated between Dallas Morning News pundit Phillip Wuntch and Pulitzer Prize-winner Roger Ebert on an airplane, don't use "So, what did you think about Kingpin?" as an icebreaker. But in terms of expressing truly maverick opinions on a variety of important filmmakers, performers, and genres, American moviegoers are far more unpredictable than your average film critic when they select their picks and pans. In general, we tend the sacred cows of filmdom like it's Jesus' own cattle ranch.

Who among us paid opinion makers would admit that Martin Scorsese's last three pictures were tedious, self-conscious auteur parodies? Or that the Walt Disney animation "renaissance" supposedly launched under Jeffrey Katzenberg's brief reign is a marketing myth and little more? Or that Robert Altman, the most talked-about filmmaker of the '70s and an occasional pariah ever since, is making better movies now than in his post-M*A*S*H* salad days?

By his own account, Altman has made only two features in his career that were box-office hits. He is dependent on the goodwill of American critics who have--not for the first time--turned their backs on him. "I can't wait for this movie to come out and get terrible reviews," the 71-year-old Altman says of Kansas City, his 30th feature as writer-director. His once-famous benevolence toward the press has dwindled to a faint animosity in his bloodshot, laser-blue eyes. "But you know what? It's going to outlive me, you, and everybody who writes about it."

You could call his words sour grapes, but they've been plucked from a fertile vineyard of critical scorn. Except for its acclaimed live soundtrack, Kansas City indeed is receiving lukewarm-to-hostile notices. "Aimless" and "inconsequential" are just two of the adjectives lobbed at him by critics.

Those descriptions are bouquets compared to the feeding frenzy that followed the release of Ready to Wear, Altman's 1994 all-star flop and easily the worst-reviewed feature by any major American filmmaker during the last decade. Those who care to rent the video for a second look just might discover a lightweight sex romp with a finale smarter than anything that preceded it. A bit lethargic? Certainly, but based on the cacophony of horrified, righteous protests, you'd think Altman had filmed one of his bowel movements and charged audiences $6.50 a head to watch it.

"The advance publicity [for Ready to Wear] laid a trap for film critics," Altman says. "While we were shooting, the buzz was 'Altman's taking a peek inside the fashion industry.' Well, that's not what I did at all, and never intended to. In the first place, there's nothing inside the fashion industry--those folks have to reinvent themselves a couple times a year. I wanted to make a farce, an old-fashioned romantic comedy set in a milieu most people find exotic. I think it's a perfectly pleasant little movie."

Kansas City could never be mistaken for "a pleasant little movie," so desperate, amoral, and angry are its characters. Set on the eve of the Missouri gubernatorial elections in the early 1930s, the movie flashes forward and back across a 48-year period in which individuals of fatally different classes and ethnicities clash.

Daft, impulsive telegraph operator Blondie (Jennifer Jason Leigh) thinks it's outrageous that "a bunch of nigger gangsters" headed by dapper sociopath Seldom Seen (Harry Belafonte, in the film's most delicious performance) has detained her beloved hubby, Johnny (Dermot Mulroney). Johnny is a small-time hood whose movie-star good looks and graceful swagger can't eclipse the colossal stupidity required to steal petty cash from Seldom, one of the most feared men in Kansas City.

Blondie, who's seen a few too many James Cagney and Jean Harlow flicks, decides to kidnap the opium-addicted socialite, Carolyn (Miranda Richardson, whose stellar comic timing runs her a close second to Belafonte), to pressure the woman's husband into using his connections with the city's corrupt political machine to free Johnny.

"I structured this movie like a jazz song," Altman says. "It really is one long riff on a single theme where each of the actors step up and play their part. That's why there are so many monologues in the film; I see Jennifer and Miranda as a pair of tenor saxes, Harry as a trumpet. They evoke different colors and feelings."

Frankly, you get the impression that Altman has grown so weary of deflecting slings and arrows from the press ("It hurts," he admits), he's taking refuge behind the film's one unquestionably successful component--its dizzying array of jazz superstars and the sumptuous standards they perform as interludes between the movie's action sequences. But Kansas City has much more to offer. It's a sharp little diamond, cutting to the core of some slippery social issues. Altman has been widely criticized as a misanthrope, but in fact he is more generous to losers, scoundrels, and other outsiders here than any other filmmaker you can name--and he doesn't manipulate them like chess pieces in a hypermacho morality play a la Scorsese. He is the ringmaster of American cinematic irony, exploring how the social systems that protect us from each other often separate us from ourselves.

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