Saturday, September 10, 2005

KANSAS CITY (1996) - Robert Altman

While slipping my relatively recent VHS copy of Kansas City (Starz Cinema, letterboxed) into the deck, I was struck with a notion. Why had I not seen this one in the theatres? It came out in ’96, post The Player and Short Cuts, when I was well into my Altman tour of duty, even having backtracked to bone up on some of his old classics. Then it hit me -- Prêt-à-Porter, the movie so bad that it single-handedly threw me off the Altman bandwagon for the next couple years. And I had paid full price. For my money, Altman contracted a bit of a cinematic flu-bug around that time. Let’s call it Woody Allen-itis.
After the comeback successes of the two aforementioned classics, the big names were lining up to work with Altman, even as cameos. He seems to have gone a little star-crazy, packing his movies with name talent like some sort of supermarket sweepstakes winner tearing down the aisles, overloading his shopping cart full of as many name brands as possible before the buzzer goes off and the Hollywood Big Store stops footing the bill. The problem with this method is you often end up with a basket full of jumbled odds and ends, sweet tooth impulse buys with no nutritional value – case in point, Prêt-à-Porter, The Gingerbread Man, Dr. T and the Women, and even large parts of Cookie’s Fortune (note that two of those films are even named after sugary confections).

Woody seems to have had this bug for even much longer – witness Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Hollywood Ending, Anything Else and (the title says it all) Celebrity. From what I hear, Woody’s making a comeback with the forthcoming Match Point but, hey, this review’s not about the Wood Man so back to the matter at hand…Kansas City.
Is it one of those supermarket sweepstakes films? Yes and No. “Yes,” because it feels as wayward and jumbled and unfocused as those other films with many different actors and half-realized storylines floating about. And “No” because…well, most of the actors in KC are not really big name stars in the truest sense. In fact, they are just great actors, some of my favorites even – Jennifer Jason Leigh, Steve Buscemi, Miranda Richardson, and even the surprisingly menacing Harry Belafonte (who knew?).
They are all fine in this movie, some great acting moments indeed, but Altman’s follow-through is just not there. He’s riffing his way through the film, improvisational jazz style, as if the mere existence of the period sets, the weak kidnapping plot, and the culture-clash of upper-crust white versus poor black in Depression era Kansas City is enough to do the trick. Unfortunately, it’s not and the film drags because of it, only really coming to life, appropriately enough, during the extended jazz sequences.
So to answer my own question...why did I not see Kansas City in the theatre when it first came out? Probably because my movie immune-system picked up on the scent of contagion left over from Prêt-à-Porter...the French phrase not for "ready to wear" but for "stay away." Stay very far away.

1 comment:

Jordan Hoffman said...

Yeah, a let-down, but good music. The companion film which aired on PBS -- all the music plus some edited together -- is much more enjoyable. I have the album.

I disagree about Cookie's Fortune. I remember really loving that one.