'Ready to Wear' PR machine is ready to crank

January 01, 1995|By Allen Barra | Allen Barra,Special to The Sun

Robert Altman's latest film, "Ready to Wear (Pret-a-Porter)," has so many in jokes and visual puns that you wonder if the director hadn't planned this scene as one big ironic capper: Nearly 200 of the worst-dressed people in America interviewing a score of superbly dressed film stars playing people connected to the world of high fashion.

One of the worst-dressed is your correspondent. I can assure anyone who's ever wondered about it that nothing can make you more aware that your socks don't match than wandering through suites in New York's Waldorf Astoria, dodging publicists dressed like fashion models and snatching moments of conversation with Lauren Bacall, Tim Robbins, Tracey Ullman, Forest Whitaker, Sally Kellerman, Danny Aiello, Stephen Rea and Richard E. Grant, among others.

Not among the others are Julia Roberts, Lyle Lovett, Kim Basinger, Marcello Mastroianni and Sophia Loren, all of whom are in "Ready To Wear" (which opened Christmas Day) but are not available for this deluxe press junket designed to seduce hick journalists from Hartford, Chicago, Kansas City, Detroit, Louisville, Minneapolis, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, Miami, West Palm Beach, Houston, Philadelphia -- you know, any place that's not New York.

I have too much integrity to be seduced, which is fortunate, since I live in New Jersey and am thus ineligible to be flown in to spend three days at one of New York's great luxury hotels and stuffed with gourmet food and champagne -- all in exchange for writing stories about "Ready to Wear." It's a dirty job, and no one really has to do it.

While waiting to interview Tracey Ullman and Forest Whitaker, I do some arithmetic and figure the minimum cost of bringing such a huge chunk of the entertainment press to New York for three days, and the figure hovers between $300,000 and $400,000 (depending upon what kind of breaks you get for buying tickets en masse). The budget for "Vincent and Theo," Mr. Altman's brilliant but little-seen masterpiece on the life of Vincent Van Gogh, may well have been less than the cost of just the press junket for "Ready to Wear." It's a strange feeling to see this kind of publicity machine cranking up for the work of a man who, for nearly the last quarter-century, has been the ultimate film industry maverick.

By the way, in the interest of full disclosure, I accepted free parking and a T-shirt -- and if you think these freebies compromised what you're reading now, you're just going to have to see "Ready to Wear" and judge for yourself.

My unseduced judgment is that whether or not you're a fan of Mr. Altman's films, you could do a great deal worse than spend nearly 2 1/2 hours with "Ready to Wear." Even Mr. Altman's legendary failures, such as "The Wedding" or "Buffalo Bill and the Indians" or "Health" or "Brewster McCloud," have something to hold the attention of discerning viewers, but "Ready to Wear" struts its confidence like a veteran model parading down the runway. It's the crowning technical achievement of Robert Altman's late phase, the one that began with the surprise hit of 1992, "The Player," and continued last year with his seamless adaptation of Raymond Carver stories, "Short Cuts." "Ready to Wear" uses the politics of the fashion world as a backdrop for a typical Altman epic.

Film-goers will recognize a lot of Altmanesque devices in "Ready to Wear" -- the running gag (or, in this case, walking gag: Everyone in Paris seems to be stepping in doggy doo), the amusing and sometimes annoying multivoice track on which every actor seems to be talking at once, the central figure at a microphone and commenting on the proceedings (the P.A. announcer in "M*A*S*H," Geraldine Chaplin and her tape recorder in "Nashville").

In this film, that central figure is Kim Basinger (replete with amusing cracker accent) as a fashion reporter for FAD-TV. Even those who don't get the Altman connections will laugh at much of the film; you needn't have seen previous Altman films in order to guffaw when Ms. Basinger's character gushes to a designer "You've had a lock on the look of the '90s for decades."

One characteristic of Mr. Altman's films that never changes is the dizzying number of prominent actors and just plain celebrities who want to appear in them; if there are no roles left to fill out, they'll settle for a walk-on. In "Ready to Wear," Harry Belafonte, Cher and others pop up for no apparent reason.

The budget for "Ready to Wear" isn't divulged, but it probably isn't what Hollywood would call "big budget"; Mr. Altman's epics always look more expensive than they are because of the number of high-profile actors willing to appear in them for next to nothing.

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