Altman has a tendency to alternate lively and fascinating, if sometimes maddeningly uneven, movies with works that, even when stylistically commanding, are dreary, pompous and exhausting with little reward. After the wobbly nonchalance of Ready to Wear, I fully expected Kansas City to be in the latter category. After all, it's a period piece, unfolding on Election Day in 1934, and the hub setting is a black jazz club. The '30s and jazz--it could be expected to turn almost any white liberal director into a syrupy caricaturist, or, more grotesquely, into an amateur social anthropologist. In Altman's case, the peril is compounded by direct nostalgia--he grew up in Kansas City in the '30s, and has been a jazz buff since those days.
As it happily turns out, though, Altman veers close to the traps but doesn't quite fall in, at least not for long. He does cut away frequently to long sequences of musicians jamming, but his tone is matter-of-fact--he isn't pushing exoticism on us.
Nor does he bite off more than he can chew in terms of narrative. Unlike Short Cuts and Ready to Wear, Kansas City isn't a muddle of clumsily interwoven plot strands. Its central plot line, with the help of a few well-integrated subplots, takes in everything that Altman's after: the place and the time, the rich and the poor, blacks and whites and gangsters of both races, the political machine and the music and the movies and gossip about Marcus Garvey and Jean Harlow and FDR and the Lindbergh baby. There's even a glimpse of Charlie Parker (Albert J. Burnes) as a fledgling Bird.
Though melodramatic and downbeat, the script (by Altman and Frank Barhydt) also has a witty tinge, because it's built to resemble one of those lovers-in-peril yarns that were popular in the period--in particular, Sam Wood's 1933 Hold Your Man, which Altman's heroine goes to see. But it also leaves in all the stuff about race and sex and class (and, to a lesser extent, drugs) that those films left out.
Blondie (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who works at the same Western Union office where Charlie Parker's mother cleans up, isn't blond as the picture starts--her dye job went bad, and her short brown hair looks fried and weary. Later, when she passionately defends Harlow against her moviegoing companion's charge that her hair looks "cheap," we realize where Blondie got her unconvincing tough-girl act.
Her handsome, stupidly cocksure husband (Dermot Mulroney), whose name, of course, is "Johnny," is being held prisoner by a powerful black gangster, Seldom Seen (Harry Belafonte), whom he has tried to rob. The desperate Blondie kidnaps Carolyn (Miranda Richardson), the unhappy, laudanum-addicted wife of a prominent local political figure (Michael Murphy)--an adviser to FDR--in hopes that he'll use his influence with the KC underworld to make Seldom Seen release Johnny. The film then follows the two women, as the fast-talking, anxious Blondie drags the addled Carolyn through the city's underbelly.
This strand is intercut with scenes of Seldom Seen holding forth at length to the brainless Johnny about the greed and evil of the white man. It's here that Kansas City loses its balance a bit. Belafonte gives a good, bone-dry performance, as he did last year in White Man's Burden; he's always nice to have around. But his lines in Kansas City--he's said to have written most of them himself--are too heavy with undigested thematic content.
Seldom Seen is supposed to be the black guy who understands, but is not understood by, white culture--the seldom-seen black man who's in a position to vent his rage without jeopardizing himself. But all this would be more persuasive if he didn't feel the need to explain himself in long monologues, even to a scroungy mutt of a white guy like Johnny. Seldom Seen is so obviously a symbolic figure that he's insufficiently a character; his scenes call to mind socially conscious 1950s television drama.
It doesn't detract that much, though, partly because Belafonte's presence is so ticklingly scary that it makes up for the writing's windiness, and partly because the real emotional focus of the film is on the two women. Blondie is another Little Match Girl to add to the Jennifer Jason Leigh gallery, true, but this isn't as irritating here as it was in Georgia, because she's actually involved in a plot; we aren't being asked simply to sit there and admire her vulnerability. Leigh never loses the poignancy in Blondie's comically exaggerated imitation of Harlow. Richardson is simply brilliant--without a second of histrionics, she makes us feel this woman's misery and anger. Her face is such an unreadable, dead-fish mask that her one decisive action in the film is a genuine jolt, yet it doesn't come out of nowhere. It makes dramatic sense.
Altman has been quoted as saying that Kansas City is "my best piece of work." This may be partly infatuation, yet it's not hard to understand why it could be his favorite. I think he's made stronger films, but Kansas City is one of his most likable; it's gritty and tough-minded and cynically funny without being heartless. In spite of everything Altman puts Blondie through, he ultimately shows unusual generosity to her--by the end, she's a platinum blonde once again.
--M. V. Moorhead
Directed by Robert Altman; with Jennifer Jason Leigh, Miranda Richardson, Harry Belafonte, Dermot Mulroney, Michael Murphy, Steve Buscemi, Brooke Smith, Jane Adams, Jeff Feringa, Martin Martin, Albert J. Burnes and A.C. Smith.