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R: ARCHIVE, S: REVIEWS, D: 08/15/1996,

All that jazz

Robert Altman can't make Kansas City's riffs resolve

by Peter Keough

KANSAS CITY. Directed by Robert Altman. Written by Altman and Frank Barhydt. With Jennifer Jason Leigh, Miranda Richardson, Harry Belafonte, Michael Murphy, Dermot Mulroney, Brooke Smith, Steve Buscemi, and Jane Adams. A Fine Line Features release. At the Nickelodeon, the Kendall Square, and the West Newton and in the suburbs.

Music in Kansas City


Kansas City is Robert Altman's second film named after an American city famed for its music, but it's no Nashville. His 1975 masterpiece earned the right to take the name of a metropolis because its multipartite narrative reflected the many fates and voices of its subject. At the same time it was true to its musical roots because it resolved all these voices with a devastating final chord. Altman's new film attempts the same, but despite excellent performances, an outstanding soundtrack, and intriguing narrative sleights-of-hand, Kansas City plays more like a formal exercise than the evocation of a community or the synthesis of a work of art.

Maybe that's because Altman takes his stylistic inspiration not from the predictable patterns of country music but from the skewed improvisations of jazz. Chronology is the first thing he subjects to his fast and loose treatment. The film opens on a rainy election eve in the title town in 1934. Blondie O'Hara (Jennifer Jason Leigh, doing strange things with her mouth -- are those fake teeth?), posing as her manicurist sister Babe (Brooke Smith), pays a visit on opiate-addicted client Carolyn Stilton (Miranda Richardson, a master at seeming enigmatic), whose powerful-politician husband, Henry (Michael Murphy), is an adviser to President Roosevelt.

When Carolyn asks whether Blondie has brought her "something," the gawky and vulgar stranger produces a handgun instead of the laudanum she's expecting. Blondie is kidnapping Carolyn, she explains, to pressure Henry into using his influence to get her husband, Johnny (Dermot Mulroney), out of the clutches of the gambler Seldom Seen (Harry Belafonte). Her harebrained and unlikely scheme put forth, Blondie gives Carolyn a bottle of the drug, which Carolyn greedily imbibes. "That sure works fast," Blondie notes. "You're not going to go yellow pants on me, are you?"

This is an example of the kind of quirky dialogue that makes Blondie and Carolyn's subsequent duet one of the most diverting parts of Kansas City. That and Altman's fun in tying knots in time and point of view with his editing. You're given notice that strict attention will be required when a jarring cut is made from the kidnapping to a daytime scene with Blondie and Babe in a train station. After a few moments you figure out that what you're seeing is a flashback; from there with impressive but ultimately gratuitous narrative convolutions the film's slender premise and plot unfold. Johnny has robbed one of Seldom Seen's high-rolling customers -- in blackface, no less. Seldom quickly apprehends him and holds him prisoner in his Hey-Hey Club, allowing Altman to buoy the film with lengthy bridges of period jazz performed by the musical legends visiting there.

Which is unfortunate, because Altman's attempt to make cinematic jazz is overshadowed by the musicians making the real thing. Only once does the music mesh with the story with memorable impact -- a "cutting" contest with Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins (played by saxophonists Joshua Redman and Craig Handy) exchanging fiery improvisations intercut with an execution as chilling as the climactic assassination in The Conformist. There aren't many such moments. Although not nearly as flimsy and superficial as Ready To Wear, Kansas City has to strain to stretch Altman's few resources into a feature, relying on a inscrutability that in the end amounts to trickery and an ambiguity that becomes amorphousness.

In effect the film consists of two captive audiences -- Johnny, at the hands of Seldom Seen, who subjects him, and us, to a droning monologue on racism, politics, and power; and Blondie and Carolyn, who, bound to each other, engage in a loopy and far more entertaining dialogue, mostly on the theme of class differences. As Blondie, who admits that her role model is Jean Harlow, Leigh is put in the less than satisfying position of being an actress playing a character who's playing an actress. Despite some prickly line readings and pronounced tics, her character is little more than a one-dimensional pose.

If Leigh's Blondie is too obvious, Ricardson's Carolyn is too opaque. This performance is a marvelously timed riff on stoned detachment that implies Carolyn is holding something back with her ditzy obtuseness. But that something is never defined or even proven to exist. Carolyn's relationship with her husband -- the key to the film's dénouement -- is not only unexamined but ultimately irrelevant. She serves both as our unenlightened point of view and as Altman's ironic omniscience, but when the shocking conclusion arrives, her mystery becomes mere incoherence and cheap effect.

Unlike the stunning finale of Nashville, the bang that Kansas City ends on is more of a confused whimper. Although one of the most intelligent films of the year, it's also one of the most soulless. With Altman at the height of his playful powers but at the nadir of his inspiration, it's a series of expert variations on an empty theme.

Music in Kansas City


Making music together

NEW YORK -- In Kansas City, the sequences of an all-night jazz show -- with jazz greats of the '30s played by their contemporary counterparts -- may seem more vivid than the slight plot, in which movie-obsessed Blondie O'Hara (Jennifer Jason Leigh) kidnaps socialite Carolyn Stilton (Miranda Richardson) to get Carolyn's politician husband to free Blondie's hood husband from the clutches of gangster/jazz club owner Seldom Seen (Harry Belafonte).

In fact, though Robert Altman and Frank Barhydt wrote the story 10 years ago, they let it sit until they figured out how to make live jazz central to the film. Explains Altman, "The idea was for these two women to start these conversations, back and forth, that weren't necessarily about what was going on, but about themselves. That's pretty much the way jazz players do it. They set the song, and then the tenor saxophone gets up to do his riff, and then another tenor does his, and they go back and forth. The whole movie is a jazz piece. These characters are horns. And each time I do a scene change, we're with that band first. The tempo is set, and the music continues through. The characters drift right into it. It fits."

Richardson appreciates the musical analogy. "He's cast you; he knows what your tones are, your pitch. He hears what he wants to hear already."

Altman chose his soloists carefully. He cast Leigh because "when you take off her character's suit, you can't find Jennifer. She uses very little of her own personality. That's what I wanted this character to do. Blondie put on what Jean Harlow did on the screen. That's what Jennifer does, and she's been criticized for it. People say, `Oh, she overacts.' Sure, she overacts. That's what she's supposed to be doing. But as this film goes on, you start seeing the pink stuff inside of that character."

Belafonte, Altman says, is "a close personal friend of mine. Harry didn't audition for this part. He was this part. Seldom Seen was a real gangster who carried his money in a cigar box and went to prison three times for murder. He died in his mid to late 90s, so crime probably does pay." He adds that Belafonte wrote his own monologues. "There was no point in me writing about the black experience because I saw it from the wrong side, from white eyes."

Kim Basinger, who was supposed to play Carolyn, dropped out at the last minute because of her pregnancy. Recalls Richardson, "I just got a wild, urgent phone call out of the blue. `It's Bob Altman.' He explained the situation. `This would mean you'd have to come in right away.' I asked him, `Why me?' And he said, `You're the only one I can think of.' "

Why Richardson? "I don't have the slightest idea," Altman says. "I knew her work from two or three films. I called her up and said, `The only thing is, I can't rewrite it to pass this woman off as British. Can you do a Midwestern accent?' She said, `Don't worry. I may fail you as an actor, but I can do that accent.' This was her first American film. And she was flawless."

Why would actors rush to work with Altman upon short notice? Explains Leigh, "There are all these limitations, when you work on a movie, that are just the conventions of filmmaking, so you don't see them as limitations. There are marks you have to hit. You're not allowed to overlap with people's dialogue. On an Altman film, those are lifted. You can go anywhere. You can say anything anytime. Everything feels real. Your imagination is on fire. The set is just a really happy, fun place to be. Even the prop men are excited."

"Fun" is not a word usually associated with Leigh, who is known for her deeply troubled characters. But she says, "I think Blondie's really funny. She's trying to be tough, and it's so transparent. She's in way over her head. The only way she's informed about being a criminal is from what she's seen in the movies. She wants to be Harlow, but she's coming through with Cagney. She's not doing it very well, and that's what I love about her. Of course, I'm immediately attracted to anyone who's a misfit."

Kansas City in the 1930s was the site of the 71-year-old director's childhood. "We made it as faithful as I know how to make it," he says. "Emotionally, it was a strange trip for me. I had a sense memory of all those places. I spent the first 18 years of my life in Kansas City, and I only went back for my parents' funerals. There was a cold nostalgia. I knew the topography, but I didn't know any people. I hadn't kept any contacts. But it was pleasant. There are moments in the film that nobody's going to be able to say, `Ah, that was done for this reason.' Those are all personal memories, and all that means to me is, I know it's the truth. I don't have to worry about whether the audience will get it or not because it's the truth."

-- Gary Susman