(Air Date: Week Of 8/14/96)
Robert Altman and Jennifer Jason Leigh are like the little girl with the curl in the middle of her forehead: When they are good, they are very, very good, but when they are bad they are horrid. For "Kansas City", both are at their worst: Altman rambling and out-of-control, Leigh meticulously creating a role from all the non-essential externals & losing the heart and soul of her character in the process.
The threadbare plot, set in 1934, has Leigh kidnapping Miranda Richardson as the strung-out wife of a presidential advisor so that her husband will be forced to influence crooked nightclub owner Harry Belafonte into freeing the larcenous love of Leigh's life. (Who else but Dermot Mulroney who only gets to talk in one sequence? And Michael Murphy is all-but invisible as the FDR crony.) Leigh's idol is supposed to be Jean Harlow, but she seems to have obsessed on early Warner Bros. Talkies starring Glenda Farrell and Joan Blondell without learning a thing about the secret of their appeal. Watching Leigh's face twist into actressy mannerisms & listening to her fake her way through gun moll slang is, to put it mildly, excruciating. Blessedly, Richardson is on hand as the so-called victim. Richardson's subterranean mysteries offer welcome counterpoint to Altman's banal script and Leigh's tedious contortions.
I was stunned to see the gushing praise that Jack Kroll gave this mess in the current "Newsweek": the entire review could be splashed verbatim on "Kansas City" adverts. But this is the summer of serious fawning for deeply flawed films, like "Lone Star", that might be politely dismissed in a season less saturated with computer wizardry. There has to be more to a movie than that it NOT have special effects. Altman thinks he's found it in the Hey Hey nightclub sequences where Ron Carter, Craig Handy, Joshua Redman & James Carter are meant to evoke Jazz legends like Coleman Hawkins & Lester Young. However, the structure here is basically Leigh talking out of the side of her mouth, cut to jazz, back to Leigh, back to more jazz & so on with little connecting detail. Altman even admits that the screenplay was knitted together from two separate yarns.
When Altman is at the peak of his form, as in "Mash" & "Nashville", no one can tell a story with more brilliance or greater precision. But "Kansas City"-sadly-is way down there at the bottom, along with "Popeye" & "Pret-A-Porter"
Copyright 1996 Monica Sullivan
"Movie Magazine International" Movie Review Index
"Movie Magazine International" Home Page