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Hitting All the Right Notes

Kansas City directed by Robert Altman starring Miranda Richardson, Harry Belafonte, Jennifer Jason Leigh

By Nicolas R. Rapold

Like the jazz it depicts, "Kansas City" comes across as an effortless delight guided by an underlying discipline. This fine work lives and breathes before our eyes in the hands of master director Robert Altman, who uses the film less as a conventionally plot-driven vehicle than as a slow Sunday ride through whatever catches his fancy. The result is a movie that succeeds on many levels: as a historical snapshot of a vibrant city, as a tragic dual portrait of two women from different walks of life, even just as a scrapbook of moments, riding on jazz rhythms.

The main plot thread off which Altman works involves Blondie O'Hara (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a punchy, fast-talking gal looking to get her husband Johnny (Dermot Mulroney) back from a gangster, Seldom Seen (Harry Belafonte), whom he foolishly irked. Kidnapping Carolyn Stilton (Miranda Richardson), the doped-up wife of a prominent politician, arises as the logical solution: she hopes to force Mr. Stilton to sic the police on the gangster.

But anyone watching this movie for only the plot will be gravely disappointed, perhaps even bored: Altman feels for the audience intelligent enough to accept the vital added layers of atmosphere that allow one to imagine the rest of the city not shown on screen. Many scenes start from images reflected in mirrors, as if to remind us that at any given time we're voyeurs just happening to see part of the movie's world.

So in addition to the touching relationship that develops between Blondie and Carolyn, Altman (who co-wrote the story) presents lingering buffer shots of Seldom's jazz players at the Hey-Hey Club; an amusing ballot-stuffing sequence, headed by the ubiquitous Steve Buscemi as Blondie's sister's main squeeze; and even an odd story line about a young jazz musician and the pregnant 14-year-old he befriends. Rounding off the historical side are various pleasant touches: one political makes a mistake about a friend's wife ("Oh, Bess is Truman's wife!"); Blondie takes Mrs. Stilton to an old-fashioned movie theater.

The word "tapestry" is often used to describe Altman's films: characters move into and out of importance, now tangentially related to each other, now heavily influencing events. Here, there is less of this elegant dancing, recently highlighted in "Short Cuts."

Instead, standout solo performances by Belafonte, Richardson and Leigh help carry the film individually. As a tough gangster boss acutely aware of the state of racial relations in America, Belafonte growls his threats and jokes with a relaxed self-assurance more frightening than any outright violence. Richardson is perfection, as the perpetually addled politician's wife: she gets by only when doped up, sucking her "nerve" medicine like a baby. She drifts in and out of lucidity, though gamely conversational at all times ("I find it fascinating that both of you have husbands named Johnny.")

Leigh doesn't give us anything too new--we've seen her fast-talking, tough-gal shtick before--but here she backlights her act with a implicit desperation that gnaws away at one's core. Even her act feels tragic as such: like a dreamy teenager, she rattles off to Mrs. Stilton her favorite movie stars and their birth places, and we begin to think she herself is merely an amalgam of all the brands of scrappy newspaperwoman bravery she's seen on screen.

Of course, Altman only spends as much time on the actors in the drama as he does on what many might think the real star of the film: the musicians and their music. In one stunning, rollicking sequence, two jazz musicians duel away: the camera rushes from one to the other, then to both, and finally, plainly, gives up and lets us listen. And the eyes of the jazz musicians alone hold another entire movie with-in the movie. The music functions as a kind of running commentary on the movie: horns roar and seem to laugh cynically as one event unfolds and then another. At one point Mrs. Stilton, napping with Blondie in the house of a friend from work, wakes up at the sound of jazz music careering along across town.

But any one view of the film unfairly pulls apart the flowing, organic whole of the piece. If the movie is advertised as Altman's return to the town of his youth, then there may be more than one viewer vaguely envying the director, whatever the criminal underworld depicted alongside the jazz. Down to the challenging ending--which opens up a valuable re-thinking of the characters--"Kansas City" provides an intelligent feast for the eyes--and the ears.

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