Directed by Robert Altman. Starring Jennifer Jason Leigh, Miranda Richardson, Harry Belafonte, Michael Murphy, Dermot Mulroney, Brooke Smith, Steve Buscemi, Jane Adams. (1996, R, 110 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Aug. 16, 1996
The indefatigable Robert Altman is back with a new movie Kansas City that once again, like Nashville and The Player before it, tackles an entire city and its representative mentality as its subject matter. The events in Kansas City take place over the course of two days in 1934 and weaves together in typical Altman fashion a tapestry of numerous characters and locations. Kansas City is the town where Altman, who was born in 1925, spent his youth. That might account for some of this movie's nostalgic tone, a tone that differs markedly from the director's usual cynical outlook. Kansas City is an elaborate period piece but for all its careful attention to verisimilitude, the movie still has the feel of something artificially composed or reconstructed. The milieu, however, allows Altman to mix up a variety of elements. Kansas City during the Depression was a bustling place, a crossroads of America that was ruled by city political bosses and organized crime syndicates whose gambling and prostitution operations carried on in the back rooms of clubs while the front rooms blared some of the best and most concentrated jazz sounds this land has ever heard. Kansas City was home to the all-night “cutting contests,” competitive jam sessions that attracted all the jazz greats. A centerpiece of Kansas City is the recreation of a cutting contest at the Hey Hey Club between Coleman Hawkins (Craig Handy), Lester Young (Joshua Redman), and Ben Webster (James Carter) which is watched from the balcony by the young Charlie Parker (Albert J. Burnes). Numerous other contemporary jazz musicians are cast in the movie as well. Yet, curiously, since the sound of music is rife throughout the movie's narrative action, the music fails to emerge from mere background accompaniment and become the full-fledged dramatic player that Altman had apparently intended. The main story derives from a half-baked scheme launched by Blondie O'Hara (Leigh), a scrappy dame who models herself after her screen idol Jean Harlow. In order to rescue her petty thief husband from the clutches of Hey Hey Club owner and racketeer Seldom Seen (Belafonte), Blondie kidnaps the laudanum-addicted wife (Richardson) of an advisor (Murphy) to President Roosevelt. The improprieties of election day in a boss-run town provide background for the kidnapping caper. In a strange way, the two women -- one in a frenetic tizzy of love-crazed propulsion, the other in a neurasthenic daze of boredom and addiction -- bond over time. As the two women, Leigh and Richardson complement each other beautifully. Against Richardson's smooth alternation between stoned society lady and astute modern woman, Leigh gives a performance that out-stylizes anything she has done to date. Mannered to the hilt, the approach is not altogether inappropriate for a character who models her life on the movies, and the sheer amount of Leigh's acting per square inch of screen space will surely make viewers feel as though they're getting their money's worth. But the real Kansas City bonus is the performance of Harry Belafonte. His is an inspired turn possessed of philosophical brilliance and measured candor. You can sense that Belafonte's participation in shaping Seldom Seen's speeches and dangerous edge. Although the movie contains occasional moments of glimpsed accomplishment, Kansas City is for the most part a lame duck.