The skill of the juggler often isn't apparent or appreciated until the moment when he can no longer keep the balls in the air. And the main distinction of "Ready to Wear (Pret-a-Porter)" is how accomplished it makes director Robert Altman's previous work appear.
Unable even to decide what its title is, "Ready to Wear" is a mass of confusion pretending to be a movie, a mess of characters in search of an author. Everyone is at cross-purposes with everyone else over everything from hotel rooms and lost luggage to sexual orientation and even apparently murder, but in a movie in which so much appears to be happening, very little is really going on.
With more than two dozen characters colliding like so many giddy bumper cars and actors relying on their skill at refurbishing dialogue, "Ready to Wear" sounds like Altman's most recent successes, "The Player" and "Short Cuts."
But there is a difference between creative improvisation and absolute chaos, and while those films were delicately balanced balls that magically stayed in the air, "Ready to Wear," with a script credited to Altman and Barbara Shulgasser, has a haphazard "Let's go to Paris and see what happens" feeling that wastes everyone's time and talent.
Paris is where the annual ready-to-wear shows take place, with the top fashion designers displaying their creations to an impatient public during an especially hectic week. Many of the industry's most celebrated designers, top names such as Issey Miyake, Jean-Paul Gaultier, Thierry Mugler and Sonia Rykiel, make obligatory cameo appearances, but despite fashion industry paranoia, any satirical intent on the film's part is stillborn.
Rather Altman and Shulgasser have grafted several increasing sour and feeble lines of farce action onto this setting. None of these is strong enough to be called a plot, but the centerpiece is an investigation into the mysterious death of Olivier de la Fontaine (Jean-Pierre Cassel), head of the powerful Fashion Council, who leaves behind a wife (Sophia Loren), a mistress (Anouk Aimee) and a shadowy individual (Marcello Mastroianni) who has flown in from Moscow just to meet him.
Intercut with this is the rivalry between three fashion editors (Linda Hunt, Sally Kellerman, Tracey Ullman) for the services of a smug photographer (Stephen Rea), a rivalry for a single hotel room between journalists Tim Robbins and Julia Roberts and random bitchy behavior by cliched gay designers Richard E. Grant and Forest Whitaker.
Other prominent figures, everyone from Lauren Bacall and Lyle Lovett to Danny Aiello and Teri Garr, wander through little plotlets of their own, but the payoffs to their actions are so lacking that it's not worth the trouble to describe who they are or what they do.
Though actors invariably profess unceasing admiration for Altman, the director has cavalierly stranded most of them here with barely an interesting line or situation to their name. Lili Taylor as a New York Times reporter does emerge with her dignity intact, but only Kim Basinger, thoroughly amusing as an antic talking head for FAD-TV with more nerve than sense, gives a performance that truly entertains.
Balancing this is the film's tendency to portray women in a mean-spirited light, forcing the actresses who play the three fashion editors to participate in a subplot that is interested only in humiliating them. And Altman is the latest in a line of filmmakers who think making Julia Roberts look as plain as possible is a triumph of cleverness. Enough already.
Not clever or polished enough to be successful as farce, unwilling to supply any reason to care about any of its characters, unable to make the points about the role of fashion in society it thinks it is, "Ready to Wear" is madness without the usual Altman method. It's always been harder than it looks to make his kind of films, and this weak tea proves that point.
* MPAA rating: R, for language and nudity. Times guidelines: A key scene involves considerable full frontal female nudity, and there are several other scenes of partial nudity.
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'Ready to Wear (Pret-a-Porter)'
Starring Danny Aiello, Anouk Aimee, Lauren Bacall, Kim Basinger, Michel Blanc, Anne Canovas, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Francois Cluzet, Rossy de Palma, Rupert Everett, Kasia Figura, Teri Garr, Richard E. Grant, Linda Hunt, Sally Kellerman, Ute Lemper, Tara Leon, Sophia Loren, Lyle Lovett, Chiara Mastroianni, Marcello Mastroianni, Tom November, Stephen Rea, Sam Robards, Tim Robbins, Georgianna Robertson, Julia Roberts, Jean Rochefort, Lili Taylor, Tracey Ullman, Forest Whitaker.
Released by Miramax Films. Director Robert Altman. Producer Robert Altman. Executive producers Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein, Ian Jessel. Screenplay by Robert Altman and Barbara Shulgasser. Cinematographers Pierre Mignot, Jean Lepine. Editor Geraldine Peroni. Costumes Catherine Leterrier. Music Michel Legrand. Production design Stephen Altman. Running time: 2 hours, 32 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.