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Pity Robert Altman. Every time his fiasco-filled career enjoys a modest surge, he trips on his dick. Recklessly, he cashes the blank checks afforded by his rare commercial successes (M*A*S*H, Nashville) on disastrous “personal” projects (Brewster McCloud, Quintet), some so misbegotten (H.E.A.L.T.H., O.C. and Stiggs) as to be denied theatrical release.

The lavishly produced, incomprehensible Popeye (1980) bombed so badly that Altman was blackballed by Hollywood for over a decade, sustaining his career by turning to television (The Laundromat, The Caine Mutiny Court Martial), low-budget film adaptations of plays (Streamers, Fool for Love), and European art movies (Aria, Vincent and Theo). 1992’s The Player restored him to the mainstream, a resurrection capped by the following year’s Short Cuts, a glib but absorbing collage of Raymond Carver stories. Bankable once more, he stumbled with the achingly unfunny Ready to Wear, for which he assembled the most talented, glamorous cast in recent memory, and then could think of nothing better for it to do than step in Parisian dogshit. This week’s Kansas City, a Depression-era ensemble piece set in the writer-director-producer’s hometown, is, if anything, an even more embarrassing debacle.

Unlike California Split and Three Women—chamber pieces that focus on the interactions of several complex characters—Altman’s large-scale efforts tend to be shallow and formulaic. He has two goals: gliding his tracking camera through unusual locations, and annihilating cultural myths. He’s skilled at the atmospherics—Altman is one of the last remaining American filmmakers with an identifiable visual style—but his cynical revisionism (debunking the Wild West in Buffalo Bill and the Indians and the ethical code of hard-boiled fiction in The Long Goodbye) has all the moral force of a bored schoolboy projecting spitballs. In his world, whites are brainless dupes, minorities and criminals are soulful, and every high-minded American ideal is a sham. Although I could be persuaded to buy into most of these assumptions, more evidence is required than Altman’s hollow posturings. There’s no intellectual depth or weight to his misanthropy; he feels that merely thumbing his nose at conventional wisdom suffices.

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Kansas City recreates that crossroads Midwestern metropolis in its 1934 heyday, when the city was ruled by political bosses and organized crime. Against an Election Eve backdrop of flourishing, though illicit, bootlegging, gambling, and prostitution, and the sounds of Kansas City jazz, Altman and co-scripter Frank Barhydt have patched together a schematic, often arbitrary tale of political machinations, racial tensions, betrayal, and bloodshed. Tough-talking bimbo Blondie O’Hara (Jennifer Jason Leigh) kidnaps Carolyn Stilton (Miranda Richardson), the childless, laudanum-addicted wife of Henry Stilton (Michael Murphy), one of Franklin Roosevelt’s political advisers. Blondie’s harebrained scheme is to use Carolyn as a pawn to ensure the safe return of her small-time hood husband, Johnny (Dermot Mulroney), captured by mobster Seldom Seen (Harry Belafonte) after being caught robbing one of the gang boss’s buddies. Altman intercuts his story with jam sessions set in the black Hey Hey Club, featuring contemporary jazz instrumentalists impersonating Kansas City music legends. Like the vast majority of Altman movies, Kansas City ends in a violent, nihilistic confrontation.

Altman has based his main characters—along with a gallery of minor figures including the young Charlie Parker, his mother Addie, a pregnant teenager headed for a foundling home, and a gaggle of socialites, politicos, and lowlifes—on people he knew, or heard about, as a child. (He was 9 years old in 1934.) In the film’s press material he reveals that Carolyn is modeled on one of his mother’s friends and Seldom Seen on an actual gangster, but the true source of these unnuanced, pasteboard characters appears to be ’30s Hollywood movies. (Blondie idolizes wise-cracking Jean Harlow and, after wandering through the film with mousy brown hair—Altman’s lame notion of a joke—transforms herself into a replica of that platinum icon just prior to the grim fadeout.) Lost in solipsistic nostalgia, Altman fails to transform these private memories into flesh-and-blood characters. However real their historical antecedents, they fail to take on the substance of palpable human beings.

Skilled actors could have given dimension to these stick figures—and several do—but unfortunately, the film’s central role has been assigned to the increasingly out-of-control Leigh. Just a few years ago she was one of our most talented young actresses, with a singular flair for creeping under the skin of her characters. (Recall the magic she worked as two very different whores—one blithely optimistic and the other on the cusp of despair—in Miami Blues and Last Exit to Brooklyn.) But in her recent work, she’s become gratingly mannered, laboring so hard to top her previous accomplishments that she’s almost unwatchable. (If you’ve seen her in Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, The Hudsucker Proxy, or Georgia, you know what I mean.) Blondie is intended as the film’s moral center—she’s the sole character capable of sacrifice and selflessness—but Leigh, with her clenched, prosthetic gat-teeth, chalky kabuki makeup, mush-mouthed diction, herky-jerky movements, and snarling Thelma-Ritter-on-helium delivery, seems less like a callous-but-tender babe than an overzealous drama student pulling out all stops to snag the role of a mental patient. Apparently, Leigh feels that allowing her character even a single sympathetic moment would constitute an artistic compromise. As a result, Blondie is more alienating than the movie’s actual villains. Altman is legendary for indulging his actors, but this time he should have exercised his directorial clout to rein in Leigh. Her complicatedly misguided performance is terrible in ways that only a gifted person could devise, but terrible nonetheless.

The rest of the cast fares slightly better. Richardson can’t do much with her early scenes—Carolyn is too stoned to express anything—but she gains stature as the movie evolves. It’s bracing to see Belafonte cast once again in a leading role—his first in 12 years, discounting the wretched White Man’s Burden—but apart from a few sarcastic lines about Marcus Garvey and an intentionally inappropriate racist joke, he’s hemmed in by trite tough-guy dialogue. Mulroney and the ubiquitous Steve Buscemi are wasted in what amount to walk-ons, but Brooke Smith snaps the sluggish movie to life in her one-scene role as Blondie’s sister, Babe, and teenagers Albert J. Burnes and Ajia Mignon Johnson add welcome touches of freshness as the young Bird and the pregnant girl he befriends.

The Hey Hey Club’s jam sessions offer respite from the sour, dithering, sometimes incoherent narrative, but even these are subtly askew. Altman hired Hal Willner, organizer of eclectic pop-jazz CD tributes to Walt Disney, Kurt Weill, and Charles Mingus, to supervise the score. Wilner selected an ensemble of youthful jazz lions along with a few veteran players (saxophonists David Murray and “Fathead” Newman, bassist Ron Carter) to perform “Tickle Toe,” “Moten Swing,” “Pagin’ the Devil,” and other ’30s jazz anthems. Although highly accomplished players, the younger musicians, with their bop and post-bop roots, lack the melodic impulse and relaxation that characterized urban, blues-based Kansas City jazz. (See Bruce Ricker’s elegiac 1979 documentary, The Last of the Blue Devils, which focuses on a reunion of aging Kansas City jazzmen, for a definitive presentation of this style.)

The musicians have been cast and costumed to represent famous ’30s legends: Craig Handy is Coleman Hawkins, Geri Allen is Mary Lou Williams, Kevin Mahogany is Joe Turner, etc. But the pairings are often discordant. Tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman’s fiery, gruff playing is unsuited to his role as Lester Young, whose airy, lyrical style influenced a generation of cool sax players, notably Stan Getz and Zoot Sims. Victor Lewis, a fine modern drummer, fails to grasp the easy, supple time-keeping of master percussionist Jo Jones. The film’s soundtrack contains some soaring improvisations, but it never really captures the essence of Kansas City jazz—swing. Altman’s camerawork—leisurely tracking shots—emphasizes this failing. More dynamic editing might have added some punch to these sequences.

We leave Kansas City with as little understanding of that town as we did after Nashville 20 years ago. The true locus is, as always, Altmanland, where individuals and institutions are corrupt, actors’ worst excesses are lovingly indulged, and time passes in a pothead haze, punctuated by arbitrary acts of violence. If the movie conveyed any sense of urgency or commitment to its themes, it would be an oppressive experience, a downer. But Altman’s diddling costume-party approach denies us even that response. It will be fascinating to see whether the phoenixlike filmmaker will be able to survive this disaster.CP