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Home » Culture and Criticism

23/31: Kansas City

Submitted by on December 25, 2011 – 6:04 PM8 Comments

Watching Kansas City for the plot is probably not the best way to enjoy the film, for two reasons. The first is that the plot is primarily an excuse to take the audience on an atmospheric tour of 1934 Kansas City: the jazz clubs, the train stations, the gilt edges and grimy corners and thick red lipstick of the time. Said plot, in a dime-store nutshell: Blondie O'Hara (Jennifer Jason Leigh) false-pretenses her way into the mansion of laudanum addict Carolyn Stilton (Miranda Richardson) in order to kidnap her; Stilton's husband Henry (Michael Murphy, playing more or less the same harried, "now with 50% less ethics!" guy he's done since Manhattan) is some kind of bigwig in local politics, so Blondie thinks she can leverage Carolyn to get Henry's help in freeing her husband Johnny (Dermot Mulroney) from the clutches of a local African-American gangster (Henry Belafonte) he's unwisely crossed.

If you didn't get all that, don't worry about it; like I said, it's a justification for weaving an entire period tapestry, and the second reason you shouldn't focus too hard on the narrative structure is that doing so will make Leigh's performance much tougher to take. I had heard so many complaints about the portrayal over the years that I'd expected to find it unacceptable; it's difficult to enjoy, but it does read as authentic. Blondie makes a big deal about the resemblance between herself and Jean Harlow, and the script makes an equally emphatic point with Carolyn not seeing it, but it's clearly important to Blondie — and what I know about Jean Harlow wouldn't fill an eye-dropper, but I think we're meant to understand the Blondie character as playing a character too, a snappish dame with a noired-up pun for every situation whose teeth are too dicked up to put it all the way over. Blondie's past comes to us at a measured pace, too, and it's with various revelations about what brought Blondie to Chicago (and the bleak novella built into her shrugged "I wanted whatever Johnny wanted") that Leigh's acting choices, as affected and grating as they get, put Blondie into three dimensions.

The film has a few pacing issues. The sax-off in the middle sequence is amazing, but it stops things cold; Belafonte is good and gritty, but those sequences go on too long, and Mulroney, whose ability is variable, doesn't hold up his end here. I couldn't decide whether I wanted to see more of Blondie's sister Babe (Brooke Smith) and her Johnny (Steve Buscemi), a local enforcer, or whether exploring their stories more would have turned an already-flighty plot into an unmanageable mess.

But the flightiness works, somehow. Richardson gives a fantastic performance, a dead-on portrayal of the various stages of intoxication, and her delighted "You shot that gun! You shot that gun!" got me on the film's side for good. Carolyn wanders off at one point, and Blondie, hunting frantically for her, whips open a door to find a couple reading the Bible in their bathrobes, and has nothing to offer but a curt "Excuse me. I was lookin' for my friend" that for some reason cracked me up for five minutes. (Meanwhile, Carolyn is downstairs, explaining the Southern race problem to a living-roomful of black people.) The last five minutes is quite possibly unearned, but it's also an act of mercy, and Carolyn's last line makes you want to see another Altman movie about the next week in the Stilton marriage.

Aside from some slow speechy going in Seldom Seen's scenes (say that five times fast), I quite liked it — but if you're either 1) unable to get past Leigh or 2) not a fan of Altman's untraditional routes, it's maybe not for you. But if you can…not expect it to do what you expect it to do? Give it a spin.

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  • Jen S 1.0 says:

    This has been on my "getting around to it" list for the last thousand years, and I think I'll finally get around to it. Leigh's an aquired taste, and I think it's because she's really willing to go All The Way There, as opposed to just There, and cross that line into annoying unlikable character because that's who the character is.

  • Rinaldo says:

    Altman has definitely let me down a few times (more than a few) over the years, yet when he's even partially on, I'm glad I was there to see it, and when he really nails it (which I think he's done a dozen times at very minimum), there's nobody else like him.

    A check in IMDb indicates 33 feature films he's directed, of which I've seen 25, most of them in movie theaters. I can't understand why I've never looked this one up, and this review serves as a welcome prod to do so. Thanks.

    (Incidentally, I would trace Michael Murphy's familiar persona back to at least Nashville.)

  • c8h10n4o2 says:

    If you get a chance to listen to it with Altman's commentary, do it. He has great stories about growing up in KC that inspired a lot of the scenes. It was all filmed locally, too. I've gotten schnockered in Steve Buscemi's bar/brothel before it closed down.

  • Todd K says:

    What Rinaldo said about Murphy in Nashville.

    This write-up does bring back some of the points of Kansas City that made it worth watching, but it is one that settled in my mind as a C-grade Altman — not a stink-bomb like, say, Quintet, but well below Short Cuts and A Prairie Home Companion. I'm trying to be fair to it by making my yardstick the outstanding movies of his last 20 years, rather than a holy-grail choice like Nashville or McCabe & Mrs. Miller.

  • Seankgallagher says:

    For me, the best way to think of the film is, just as the sax players are indulging in their own duel, so the two parallel plots – the sax-off and the gangster plot – are duelling in themselves. I think Altman wanted to make a jazz movie that felt like a jazz movie (plus, of course, he's not always interested in plot). I didn't find Leigh irritating, though I think she's done better (to me, this is a little too close to what she did in "The Hudsucker Proxy"), but as you say, Richardson is hysterical, and I also liked Belafonte. On balance, not my favorite Altman, but I would definitely recommend it.

  • Todd K says:

    I really like Brooke Adams (the female lead of Days of Heaven and The Dead Zone), so I was thinking, "How did I forget she was in this?" even though I only saw it the one time in '96. But of course that's Brooke Smith, whose impressive TV résumé has not kept me from remembering her first as basement-bound, dog-threatening Catherine from Silence of the Lambs.

  • Jen S 1.0 says:

    I love how she held onto Precious after the cops got her out of the victim hole, Todd K! "Sorry I had to threaten your life, sweetie. Come meet my cat and let's get out of this six mile basement."

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    Edited a year later to correct the Brooke; it was in fact Smith. (Thanks, Todd.)

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