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Altman Visits a Jazz-Filled 'Kansas City'


Robert Altman calls his "Kansas City" a "jazz memory," and no one could hope to improve upon his description of his rich evocation of his hometown in 1934, the year he turned 9. With the effortlessness of the master that he is, Altman spins a tale of a cockamamie kidnapping that keys a meditation upon race, class and corruption set against a gorgeous period tapestry and a glorious celebration of jazz.

So much is wonderful and distinctive about this picture--its payoff such a dead-right stunner after so leisurely a buildup--that you have to wish that Altman could have seen his way to sweating out of it something like 10 minutes or more from its 115-minute running time. He just doesn't have enough story to fill out so magnificent and broad a canvas.

Altman, after all, is arguably our greatest still-active senior director--one whose work constitutes a distinct and stylish comment on American life. You just wish "Kansas City" was more satisfying, especially since it comes so close to being successful.

With a pinched look to her face, a flat, nasty squeak of a voice and choppy, ungraceful gestures, Jennifer Jason Leigh's Blondie O'Hara seems a shrewd but small-minded woman who has made a clumsy, deadly dangerous move. She gains entrance to a white-columned mansion and pulls a gun on the lady of the house, Carolyn Stilton (Miranda Richardson).

Her idea is to kidnap this upper-crust woman to blackmail her rich, politically connected husband (Michael Murphy), currently on a train bound for Washington, D.C., to pull the strings necessary to release her husband, Johnny (Dermot Mulroney). The inept Johnny had blackened his face in a bungled attempt to hold up the highest roller of the Hey-Hey Club, a jazz spot and gambling joint run by dapper, philosophical gangster Seldom Seen (Harry Belafonte). Seldom, as amused as he is enraged by Johnny's folly, now has to figure out what to do with him.

In a rhythm established by the music itself, Altman cuts back and forth between the two women and their often amusing wanderings to the Hey-Hey for great swatches of sensational jazz overlaid by Seldom Seen's endless musings on race, politics, life. As handsome and charismatic as ever, Belafonte sparks the film, he is its live wire, and he's got a great part.

But Altman returns to Seldom too often, allowing the garrulous man to become a bore. At one point Seldom remarks to Johnny: "Listen to that music, that's Bill Basie! That's part of the reason you're not dead yet!"


And that's probably a good part of the reason why this picture seems to run on too long: Altman himself just can't refrain from returning over and over to the Hey-Hey to hear that great music himself--just as Seldom can't help loving the sound of his own voice easily as much as he loves jazz.

At one point there's a contest between Coleman Hawkins (Craig Handy) and Lester Young (Joshua Redman)--with a very young Charlie Parker (Albert J. Burnes) listening from a balcony. Other jazz musicians appearing in the film include Christian McBride, Cyrus Chestnut, Don Byron, Ron Carter, Geri Allen, Mark Whitfield and singer Kevin Mahogany.

Altman hasn't made it easy on himself with Blondie and Carolyn, who involve us without asking us to like them. Hooked on her "nerve tonic," Carolyn frequently spaces out to the point of hallucination but can pull us up short with a sharp, though often condescending observation. She has so many opportunities to give Blondie the slip you have to believe she's going along with Blondie's wanderings because she hasn't anything better to do with her time. She's a bored, lonely woman whose wooziness and snobbery are sometimes funny.

Richardson has got all the shifts and unpredictability of this flighty, empty creature pat and, as Altman himself has observed, her laudanum addiction makes it especially easy for her to embrace a volatile mix of contradictory emotions.

Sometimes you fear Leigh is going to stylize herself right off the screen, but in this film she's able to pull back and show us a vulnerability and even a sweetness to Blondie, so named because she once disastrously tried to bleach her hair in emulation of her heroine, Kansas City's own Jean Harlow. In time you realize Blondie, taking her cues from movies rather than real life, has become a single-minded desperate woman out of her fervent love for a husband scarcely deserving of it.

As it happens, Blondie's determination to rescue her husband is complicated by the fact that the state is on the eve of elections, and Kansas City's legendary Boss Pendergast, while responsive to Carolyn's husband, is understandably more concerned by making sure that his tough guys, represented by Steve Buscemi's Johnny Flynn, have rounded up enough poor stooges to vote--and vote often.

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