Ready to Wear (United States/Italy/France, 1994)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

"[Ready to Wear/Pret-a-Porter] is just a silly little movie, it's not a serious epic. So just enjoy, laugh with it, have a good time. It's no big deal."
- Robert Altman, director of Ready to Wear

One wonders whether Robert Altman arrived at that conclusion before or after the much-anticipated Ready to Wear was complete. Despite some delicious moments, this sluggish, overlong, halfhearted satire feels like a movie that wanted to go somewhere but never got there. With punches pulled and fangs capped, this look at high fashion is not at all what was expected from the director of The Player, one of the most vicious and biting sendups of the last two decades.

First of all, there are far too many characters. A cast list like the one above looks good on paper, but no actor gets more than a handful of scenes, which leads to a pervasive sense of apathy regarding almost everyone. Who cares if Marcello Mastrioanni's mysterious Sergio finds his lost love (Sophia Loren)? Neither of them seems any more substantial than the garments worn by the models in the climactic fashion show.

At least three of the subplots could have been excised altogether. One involves Tim Robbins and Julia Roberts as American journalists thrown together in the same hotel room. Another pairs Teri Garr and Danny Aiello as a couple with a "dark" secret, and a third follows New York Times reporter Lili Taylor as she researches a story. Eliminating these might have streamlined Ready to Wear to make it more palatable. It certainly would have cut down the running time.

It's not that Altman can't work with a large cast -- he did an admirable job in Short Cuts. The problem here is that his stories aren't particularly well-focused. The best scenes are often those where dialogue overlaps and the various subplots intersect.

That's not to claim there's nothing effective in Ready to Wear. In fact, three of the stories are vintage Altman. One, involving the cutthroat machinations of three fashion magazine editors (Sally Kellerman, Tracey Ullman, and Linda Hunt) to woo a sleazy superstar photographer (Stephen Rea), has a bite to it. The attempts of fashion queen Simone Lowenthal (Anouk Aimee) to keep her empire out of the hands of a cowboy boot maker (Lyle Lovett) takes a pointed turn that leads to the scene almost everyone seems to be talking about. And Kim Basinger single-handedly skewers the shallow manner in which the news media obsesses over fashion.

Nevertheless, Ready to Wear doesn't have enough substance to justify its length, nor does it possess enough raw humor to leaven the flat spots. The jokes are inconsistently funny, with some being worth giggles, some eliciting hearty chuckles, and some prompting little more than shrugs.

Altman is a marvelously talented director. There's no denying that. Films like M*A*S*H, Nashville, The Player, and Short Cuts have proven his skill several times over. And, while Ready to Wear is far from his best work, neither is it equivalent to much of the trash present on so many multiplex screens this season. The fashion industry can heave a sigh of relief that Altman has spared it the full force of his guns. This film isn't likely to provoke much outrage from anyone except those expecting something as searing as The Player. Ready to Wear keeps its jabs clothed, and by the time it strips away the layers of covering (both literally and figuratively), it's a little too late.

Ready to Wear (United States/Italy/France, 1994)

Run Time: 2:12
U.S. Release Date: 1994-11-25
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Content, Nudity)
Subtitles: In English, French, and Italian with English subtitles
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1