Kansas City directed by Robert Altman

Film / Video Reviews
Kansas City directed by Robert Altman
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Aug 29, 2007, 18:43

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KANSAS CITY directed by Robert Altman; Fine Line Features, 1996

Altman returns, this time with what is conversely a low-key, pot-boiler set as the title should suggest in Kansas City, Missouri. The year is 1934, jazz is flourishing downtown in the “colored” part of town and the greasy gears of the local political machine are churning without pause beneath the polite societal veneer of drawing rooms and the platitudes of lady's junior league do-goodie-goodies. Altman does a good job of reminding his audience that these are days of hard realities and social turbulence. Outside of the city's up-standing middle class homes and Southern gentility, the streets of KC were webbed with misfortune spun of empty bellies, peeling paint and organized crime. Plenty of broken-down and desperate men dangled helplessly. The astonishing detail of the sets and costumes and near video realism of the filming puts the viewer almost physically in Kansas City, 1934; every visual detail is outstanding in its realism, both the ugly and the beautiful.

1934 was a time in Kansas City when young pregnant girls were still shipped away and hidden in “homes,” poor men were gathered up from surrounding counties and paid to vote multiple times for dirty politicians under names taken from the town's dead. Blacks recognized their non-entity status outside of their own culture, and were relegated to an unspoken social bowing and scraping and self-segregation. In 1934 the purest forms of escape were found at the movie theaters and the clubs downtown, like the Hey Hey! Club where high profile jazz musicians gathered for ‘round the clock jam sessions.

Blondie (Jennifer Jason Leigh) finds escape in the movies of Jean Harlow. Harlow often portrayed the tough-talking moll, the platinum blonde pinup who would do anything for her lawless man. Despite the fact that her hair is not currently bleached to platinum (it broke off after too many Lux treatments and she's waiting for it to grow back), Blondie so identifies with Harlow's on-screen characters that she assumes a Harlow-esque persona and rarely lets those around her see beyond it. Blondie walks and talks Harlow but where Harlow made her portrayals appear glamorous, Blondie is only hard, sneering and bitter.

What begins as a half-assed attempt to free her man Johnny (Dermot Mulroney) from the clutches of a viscous, black king-pin—well played by Harry Belefonte—quickly deteriorates into a hopeless situation. Blondie kidnaps the unhappy wife of a local politician who is so incapacitated by her continual sips from the bottle of laudanum she carries with her in her purse, that in conversation she slips in and out of nonsensical verbiage and Blondie is sometimes forced to hold her up and help her walk.

Kansas City had a tremendous amount of potential but missed the mark with the most important factor, that slippery toad: character development. We are supposed to believe that Miranda Richardson, who plays Caroline Stilton the politician's wife, and Blondie form a bond during their time on the run. This supposed bond is never truly convincing because Caroline is too stoned and dazed to make any believable connection with anything let alone anyone, and Blondie is such a caricature of a silver-screen dame that she seems impenetrable or incapable of processing any real emotion.

There is plenty to like in Kansas City, but most of the character portrayals remind me of the classic comedy bit in which two lovers run toward one another slow-motion in a field, arms-outstretched until they reach the point where you expect them to connect in an embrace and they continue to run past each other, arms still out-stretched. Like that bit, there is no tangible embrace here, either.

See Kansas City for the terrific jazz scenes and the incomparable sets, but don't expect another Nashville this time around.

-C. Jaeger

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