Kansas City (United States, 1996)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Kansas City is Robert Altman's disappointing followup to the equally disappointing Ready to Wear, which underwhelmed critics and audiences alike following its Christmas 1994 release. While Kansas City is a modest step forward for one of America's most-respected independent directors, it falls far short of the raw power of Short Cuts or the intricate, biting satire of The Player. Kansas City is a sadly ordinary motion picture, and, in less sure hands, it might have been something of an unfortunate mess. Even with Altman at the helm, however, it manages to be singularly unremarkable.

This hasn't been a very good summer for "respected" directors. Altman's Kansas City comes in the wake of Bernardo Bertolucci's vapid Stealing Beauty and Jim Jarmusch's bizarre Dead Man, neither of which received more than a handful of positive reviews. Kansas City was given a lukewarm reception when it bowed at Cannes earlier this year, and, with almost no publicity accompanying its U.S. release, it appears destined for obscurity.

Taking place over a forty-eight hour period around Election Day, 1934, in Altman's hometown of Kansas City, the movie is carefully attentive of period details. Sets, costumes, and props are all evocative of the time, when Kansas City was booming in the midst of the country's Great Depression. The jazz soundtrack sizzles, with performances by the likes of Joshua Redman, Craig Handy, Cyrus Chestnut, Kevin Mahogany, James Carter, and Geri Allen. Yet, although the movie gets the minutiae right, it stumbles over characterization and plot. Like an improperly-focused photograph, the background is crisp and clear, but the foreground is muddled.

Kansas City's main character is Blondie O'Hara, played by the normally-reliable Jennifer Jason Leigh with more than a dash of Katherine Hepburn and Jean Harlow. This is the third time in her last five movies that Leigh has portrayed a tough-talking throwback to the thirties and forties (the other two being The Hudsucker Proxy and Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle). Here, while Leigh's performance leaves a definite impression, it's also out-of-synch with everyone else's. Her character, who is largely a two-dimensional caricature, never interacts effectively with anyone, least of all Miranda Richardson's Carolyn Stilton, in whose company she spends the entire movie.

When Kansas City opens, Blondie's husband, Johnny (Dermot Mulroney), is involved in the robbery of a wealthy black businessman who's on his way to a night of big-money gambling at a jazz club run by gangster Seldom Seen (Harry Belafonte, recalling Marlon Brando's Godfather). When Johnny's identity is uncovered, Seldom has him picked up, then holds him at the club while mulling over the most effective means of retribution. Blondie pleads for Johnny's life, but to no avail. So, desperate to save her husband, she kidnaps Carolyn Stilton, the wife of a prominent local politician, Henry Stilton (Michael Murphy), and demands that, in return for Carolyn's life, he use his influence to save Johnny.

The secondary storyline features a 12-year old Charlie Parker (Albert J. Burnes), who, along with his mother, helps a 14-year old pregnant girl who has come to Kansas City to have her baby. As usual in an Altman film, this narrative element eventually dovetails with the primary one. There's also a side plot about the vote fraud perpetrated by Tom Pendergast's corrupt Democratic machine. In the past, Altman has successfully used multi-story narratives with ensemble casts to great effect (Nashville, Short Cuts), but not this time around.

Done straight, with Altman's usual flair for intricate character development, there's a lot of potential in Kansas City's basic plot. Inexplicably, however, Altman decided to do the movie with a satirical edge. The film plays like part homage, part affectionate parody of old-time noir thrillers. The three main characters -- Blondie, Carolyn, and Seldom -- are intentionally developed as types rather than as fully-fleshed out personalities. There are numerous occasions when Altman obviously has his tongue planted in his cheek. Unfortunately, that storytelling method doesn't really work in this setting. Kansas City has an uneven, confused tone.

There's nothing uncertain about the jazz sequences, however. Altman has filmed them from a fan's perspective, and the scenes that take place in Seldom's Hey-Hey Club during an all-night cutting contest are infused with an energy that's lacking elsewhere. Music aficionados, especially those who appreciate the tunes of Kansas City's era, will find a great deal to appreciate about the film. Others, especially those expecting something profound from an Altman feature, will discover that, though Kansas City has its share of arresting moments, the production as a whole is too superficial to be considered amongst the director's best work.

Kansas City (United States, 1996)

Run Time: 1:55
U.S. Release Date: 1996-08-16
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Violence)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1