Kansas City
directed by Robert Altman
(Fine Line Cinema, 1996)

Seldom Seen is a high-stakes gambler who likes to put his money where his mouth is, and he has plenty of both.

The mouth he was born with; the money comes from the dice game he runs in the back of Kansas City's somewhat less-than-posh Hey-Hey Club. There, Kansas City's best black musicians and worst black gamblers gather to take their respective chances, jamming or gaming.

Meanwhile, in the white world outside, it's election day, and the city is overrun by professional voters, doing their best to see that the Pendergast machine maintains control of Missouri.

And who could imagine the two worlds ever crossing paths? Writer-director Robert Altman, of course.

Altman, who 20 years ago wove half a dozen slender strands into a lush tapestry called Nashville, is back again on the music scene, with a very different tale from a very different time -- and very different results.

Nashville, which took place in the mid-'70s, gave us an ever-widening circle of musical wannabes drawn together, for better or worse, by one act of seemingly senseless violence. Kansas City, which takes place 40 years earlier, focuses on the fortunes of a small group of people with little in common and not much to offer one another but trouble.

The hot spot in the midst of this jazz-driven inferno is Blondie O'Hara (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a sometime manicurist, sometime Western Union operator who kidnaps the wife of prominent Kansas City politician Henry Stilton (Michael Murphy) so she can blackmail Stilton into helping her rescue her husband, a small-time hood named Johnny (Dermot Mulroney). Johnny has been detained by Seldom (Harry Belafonte) after Johnny -- in blackface, no less -- mugs one of Seldom's favorite patrons without Seldom's permission.

Complicating the plot are a pregnant 14-year-old, a sax-playing teen-age jazz enthusiast named Charlie Parker and the troublesome Mrs. Stilton (Miranda Richardson), whose hobby is draining the world of its liquid opium supply.

For most directors, this would be biting off more than they can chew. For Altman, it's standard operating procedure. And he almost pulls it off. Almost.

Kansas City rises to the occasion every time Seldom walks into a scene and every time the band starts to play. The jam sessions -- filmed live in Kansas City and featuring top jazz musicians a la Ron Carter -- are among the best ever recorded.

But the film falls apart each time Blondie opens her mouth.

It's not that Leigh doesn't make a colorful protagonist. With her platinum hair and green teeth, she can't miss. It's just that somewhere along the way someone seems to have taken out her real voice and dubbed in Squeaky Fromme's. That's great for Squeaky, but tough on audiences, as it reduces Leigh to a walking tub figurine -- a kind of gun-toting rubber duckie.

If Blondie were just one of a dozen characters doing time-share on the screen, she might be tolerable, even amusing. But as the focal point of all the bad that's about to happen, Blondie's nasal squeaks and squawks make for vocal fingernails on Altman's celluloid chalkboard.

That's unfortunate because Altman and Leigh work hard to make Blondie likable. They give her surprisingly sensitive dialogue and a past that would bring Stalin to tears. Sadly, both dissipate the minute she opens her mouth.

No Altman film is not worth seeing. Kansas City rates above some, below others. Nashville it's not, but then again, Altman didn't set out to give us another Nashville. He set out to give us one rip-snortin' Kansas City.

About that there is no "almost."

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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