Promising 'Kansas City' misses mark

August 16, 1996|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

So much love has gone into the physical details and the music of Robert Altman's "Kansas City" that it's a shame the movie isn't up to the effort.

It's a movie you yearn to care for, but it refuses to allow you: It's too busy being singular to be good.

The setting is the legendary town of the title at its most legendary time: the early '30s, just after the Kansas City Massacre in which Pretty Boy Floyd allegedly gunned down two FBI agents as well as some cops and the con he was supposed to free.

So the town is a wide-open gangsterville, a booze-drenched and floozy-rich boomtown where gunfights are apt to break out at any moment while the Boss Pendergast Machine administers the civic bureaucracy with a chilling efficiency.

At the same time, the town sports a flourishing black urban culture driven forward by the jazz artists who, 20-odd years later, were to break into the mainstream and reshape American popular culture.

The film is essentially set in the odd zone where these two worlds meet.

Though whites control everything outside the black area, they control nothing inside it; an odd kind of peace, based on mutual respect, seems to exist.

It most resembles the world etched by Fritz Lang in the brilliant "M" in which a German city has two parallel universes, of cops and crooks who realize that somehow each depends upon the other and are therefore able to co-exist and even cooperate.

And that is exactly the "M"-like caper at the center of "Kansas City."

As Altman has it, a black cabbie and a white crook named -- duh! -- Johnny (Dermot Mulroney) decide to rip off a high-roller when he gets to town for a high-stakes poker game. But it doesn't take black bossman Seldom Seen (Harry Belafonte) long to see through the cover story and realize the scam was an inside job.

Soon enough, he's nabbed them both, and trying to figure out what punishment is appropriate.

Nobody has counted on Johnny's gal Blondie (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to take it so seriously. Realizing she needs leverage to negotiate for her boyfriend's release, she kidnaps the wife of a prominent businessman and FDR adviser.

Her fundamentally shrewd insight is not merely how corrupt the system is, but how interconnected, how it unifies the seemingly disparate worlds. She can put pressure on a black gangster by kidnapping a white socialite.

That is certainly interesting, but it's really not the film's center. Instead, the center is the oddly pathetic relationship that grows between the opium-addicted socialite (Miranda Richardson) and the tough, bitter little crook's girl determined to hold onto her one little piece of planet Earth.

It's an oddly discordant piece.

For one thing, the story at the center feels extremely slight, even mousy, given the physical scale of the production. It really has nothing to do with Kansas City in the '30s, and has only a tangential relationship to the themes of black music and self-expression within an overarching white corruption.

It has no larger resonance; indeed, quite the opposite -- it feels arbitrary. The movie is like a symphony orchestra performing "Chopsticks."

The performances also feel uneven.

Belafonte is doing a clear impression of Marlon Brando's majesterial Don Corleone, complete to that growly little voice, but he never has a Tataglia family to fight; he has only these crummy little gnats to exterminate.

Leigh has been here, done this: It's another of her whiny, dreary white-trash roles, so familiar from "Single White Female" or "Last Exit to Brooklyn," complete to the dark focused little eyes and the annoying voice.

Richardson never makes much sense at all, and her last act -- kindness or cruelty -- ends the movie on a down note.

All the way through, "Kansas City" seems to promise so much more than it delivers. But in the end, there's no there there. No, that was Oakland. OK, there's no movie there.

'Kansas City'

Starring: Harry Belafonte, Miranda Richardson, Jennifer Jason Leigh

Directed by: Robert Altman

Released by: Fine Line

Rated: R (violence and profanity)

Sun score: **

Pub Date: 8/16/96

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