Kansas City (Robert Altman)

Rating: ** (out of ****)

Robert Altman is not generally known for making mediocre, run-of-the-mill movies, at least not since MASH; his post-60's oeuvre features a sizable chasm between the uniquely brilliant (3 Women, Short Cuts, &c.) and the utterly wretched (Beyond Therapy, Ready to Wear, &c.). Kansas City, therefore, is unique among Altman's recent films: neither superb nor mesmerizingly awful, it is simply boring. Perversely, this somehow makes it more disappointing than Altman's genuine disasters, which, while unquestionably "worse" than Kansas City, are a hell of a lot more interesting; as a general rule, I'd rather be gaping than yawning. (I wonder how chasms feel about this dichotomy?) (Sorry.) Much has been made of the film's allegedly unique structure, which supposedly serves as an analogue to the jazz music that permeates and grounds it; I can't really perceive a significant difference between what Altman does here and what's he done in countless other films, both better and worse, but it's ultimately academic anyway. Nothing in Kansas City -- apart from the music, that is -- seizes the imagination or provokes an emotional response. It's a drab, vacuous picture, and Altman's subordination of narrative and character to his film's score and period detail suggests that he decided to make a hometown-reminiscence movie, spent considerable time brainstorming of all of the details he'd like to include, then belatedly thought, "oh yeah, I suppose something or other ought to happen at some point." In fact, a plotless Kansas City would probably have been more interesting. (But then again, maybe not...witness Altman protégé Alan Rudolph's equally dull, and utterly formless, Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle). Even Altman's gift with actors fails him -- I've been defending Jennifer Jason Leigh for some time against detractors who find her work too mannered and lifeless, but this time I can only shrug helplessly, as she resembles nothing so much as an animatronic Jean Harlow puppet. (I think that's supposed to be the point, but that knowledge doesn't make it any less painful to watch.) Miranda Richardson fares somewhat better, and occasionally seems as though she might claw her way out of the surrounding doldrums by sheer force of will, but she's yoked to Leigh for the entire picture, and ends up going down with the ship. Harry Belafonte makes numerous long, pointless speeches in a Don Corleone rasp, and Steve Buscemi turns up briefly as well...to prove conclusively that it's an independent feature, I guess. (Where's Lili Taylor?) Bring back Popeye.