My Robert Altman Review Thread

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I forgot the opening line.

A Perfect Couple - 1979

Directed by Robert Altman

Written by Allan F. Nicholls & Robert Altman

Starring Paul Dooley, Marta Heflin, Titos Vandis & Belita Moreno

You know you're going to get something unusual from a Robert Altman movie, so it comes as no surprise to hear that A Perfect Couple is a very curious and out of the ordinary romantic comedy - veering towards being a musical, though most of the music numbers are of the diegetic kind. Altman's idea for the film was to show us a love story where the two leads were just two ordinary people ("schlumps" is the word he uses) and for this he nabbed Paul Dooley (who played one of the main characters in A Wedding) and Marta Heflin (who'd also been in A Wedding) as his two leads. The movie plays so unconventionally that I genuinely didn't know what was in store for us - it's a playfully enigmatic romance. Sheila (Heflin) and Alex (Dooley) have a courting that's so off the rails the film earns top marks for being original - and while that's what most of us want when we watch a movie, I'd say be careful what you wish for. Your taste in music and amenability to the flawed personalities of our two main characters might be what makes or breaks A Perfect Couple for you.

Paul and Sheila both subscribe to a dating service, hooking up by watching taped Q&A sessions with prospective partners. Their first date is an absolute disaster, and that's not the only factor which will work against them. Paul's Greek family is ruled by it's patriarch, his father Panos (Titos Vandis) who is unusually strict and traditional - so much so Paul hides the fact he's dating Sheila. His sister, Eleousa (Belita Moreno), is dying. Paul and Eleousa are desperate to escape the overbearing and stifling atmosphere at home, whereas brother-in-law Fred Bott (Henry Gibson) is all too ready to play along. Meanwhile, Sheila deals with a strict patriarch of her own - band-leader Teddy (Ted Neeley), who drives his singers and musicians hard in rehearsals performance-wise and other than that fines them for even small infractions. She lives in a loft with all the other band-members, sacrificing much privacy, and experiencing the same kind of lack of control over her life. Paul and Sheila's love life will go on to experience one disaster after another - but something keeps on pulling them back to each other, and they do have the advantage of having both seen each other at their worst. Perhaps that's love, and a perfect couple.

I say love, but the first time I watched A Perfect Couple I thought Sheila hated Paul - and watching Paul's pushy insistence he see Sheila off at her door and kiss her made me very uncomfortable. Multiple times she tries to fend him off, and get him to leave - and by the end I was telling him aloud "Dude, she said no!" It was this that confused me a great deal about the film. Sheila is simply shy and reserved, but this can easily be misinterpreted as not being interested - making Paul's pushy insistence on kissing and demanding they go on more dates look like he's unaware that Sheila's not that into him. Only when she opens up a little later in the film do we understand her feelings in the matter, and as a result the film becomes less prickly. I honestly thought we were heading into stalker territory - especially when, after a mix-up, Sheila starts dating someone else and it's Paul who arrives unannounced, fighting the other guy regardless of what Sheila has to say about the matter. My feelings about all of this might stem from the fact that Paul isn't your typical heart-throb figure, and that perhaps in any other romantic comedy I've ever seen, he probably wouldn't be winning the girl over in such a clumsy manner.

One other aspect of the movie that might tip it into unfavourable territory is the music. Keepin' 'Em Off The Streets had been assembled by Allan F. Nicholls not too long before production on this film commenced, and they get to perform quite a few numbers during the film - around a dozen in all. I liked a few of the songs, but there were some that didn't quite come off as well. It doesn't kill the film, but seeing as the back-half is so music-heavy a couple of mediocre songs strung back to back really kills the mood. Hearing Jesus Christ Superstar's Ted Neeley belt out a few numbers was cool though - I'd only ever heard him as Jesus in that film, and I really enjoy him playing the lead role in that movie rendition of the musical. Marta Heflin does a great job singing Won't Somebody Care as well, seeing as we don't hear her as a vocalist as much as the other band members. In my opinion, I thought there were probably 3 or so songs too many that bog the film down - some of the weaker numbers that insist on dragging the last 20 or so minutes out as long as they do. I'd enjoyed the music up to a point, but it overstays it's welcome.

Out of all the reviews I read for A Perfect Couple, the most interesting item of observation was from Penelope Gilliatt of The New Yorker, who talked about Altman "working too fast", and although her comments about this not being a "closely thought-out film" (such a comment seems to show a lack of awareness about Altman films in general) is both on the money but at the same time (in a contradictory sense) an understandable misinterpretation, I also get the feeling that he was rushing through. He had a novice cinematographer in Edmond L. Koons, who wouldn't last long in the business, and his old friend and long-time collaborator Tony Lombardo in the editing suite - but this isn't a film that puts much stock in technical qualifications. Instead, Altman wants to explore the spontaneous thoughts of his actors in an almost rough, documentary style of filmmaking. He'll send some characters to interrupt Paul and Sheila, who are about to make love, but it distinctly sounds like the reasons they have for interrupting have been made up on the fly, and as is usual in many of his films, dialogue is probably left to them completely - in other words, it hasn't been written down at all.

In the end, what it all amounts to is one of Robert Altman's least seen films. It doesn't demand to be seen as a great work of art, but it does stand as another interesting experiment by a filmmaker who was totally unafraid of trying something completely different. Of course, in many previous instances his experimentation proved pure genius, and his experiments masterpieces. It wasn't until this late 70s portion of his career that his experiments sometimes seemed a little lacking in execution and foresight. I can't count the number of times I've been watching a cinematic romance thinking, "Why can't they just get two average people? I'd really be able to believe in a film that did that." Now I'm faced with the ultimate truth of what that really feels like. A small portion of me is shame-facedly leaning over to the person casting this and whispering carefully "Can we still get Brad Pitt?" I'm exaggerating of course - in a way that tries to explain how conflicted I felt while watching a guy with average looks and awkward, deficient personality stumble through a disaster-ridden courtship. Marta Heflin is good looking, and there have been no end of shy girls in romantic dramas or comedies, so the same doesn't go for her in this.

Spread throughout, there are an inestimable number of little Altman jokes - often dependent on the improvisatory skills of the performers. Henry Gibson and Allan F. Nicholls, two Altman regulars, do the best with what they're given. Moments of fun and comedy aren't telegraphed like they'd be in a big high-budget Hollywood comedy - so it takes great concentration to get the most out of A Perfect Couple. Often it's the throwaway remark, the pratfall in the background or the slight change of expression - and the good thing about this is that when one of these comedic moments doesn't land, it's not particularly obvious it was even there. Marta Heflin is the enigma - she didn't go on to have a big career - hardly one at all actually. Paul Dooley flirts with making his character unsympathetic - and it's only once you can see the film as a whole you see he's a likable guy. There's no great performer here that that really demands attention, or any performance that's cinematically satisfying - so your enjoyment depends on how you grade the experiment. If you like the music of Keepin' 'Em Off The Streets (their music dominated the latter half of the film), Altman's sense of humour and Dooley, chances are you'll find this eccentric and enjoyable. If you can't stand the chaos, the music is hurting your ears and you find Dooley annoying, chances are you'll dislike this very much. I landed somewhere in the middle. A Perfect Couple is a long, long way from being a perfect movie, but it's a daring one at least.

My movie ratings often go up or down a point or two after more reflection, research and rewatches.

Latest Review : Detour (1945)

I forgot the opening line.

HealtH- 1980

Directed by Robert Altman

Written by Frank Barhydt, Robert Altman & Paul Dooley

Starring Carol Burnett, Glenda Jackson, James Garner, Lauren Bacall
Paul Dooley & Alfre Woodard

By the time the 1970s wound down and the new decade loomed, filmmaker Robert Altman had worked himself into an unenviable position - his champion at 20th Century Fox, Alan Ladd Jr., quit his position as president of the studio mid-'79, leaving him without someone he could count on to indulge him. For years he'd been free to experiment, regardless of declining audience numbers and critical acclaim. He'd made a few great films since Nashville, in 1975, but nothing that had the same kind of industry buzz and popular appeal as MASH (1970), and only one, 3 Women (1977), could be classified as being among his best. Despite all of that, for his next, he made his most Altmanesque film since that mid-70s classic in HealtH - just too late. 20th Century Fox were not interested anymore, and the film was given the smallest of Arthouse releases - and only an exalted few got to see it. In the years since, licensing issues meant it's never seen the light of day in VHS, DVD or Blu-Ray form - easily classifying itself as hardly seen. Going through Altman's lesser-seen canon, one always hopes to find unfortunate classics, but doesn't always expect to - fortunately, HealtH is one of those that's actually quite good - bordering on great.

The film takes place during a convention at the Don CeSar Hotel in St. Petersburg, Florida. It's a health food convention, and the organization (called HealtH, which stand for "Happiness, Energy, and Longevity through Health") is host to three nominees running campaigns for the upcoming election of it's president. Esther Brill (Lauren Bacall) - a woman who claims to be an 83-year-old virgin, and who suffers from dreadful attacks of narcolepsy at the worst possible times (you know she's fallen asleep when her right arm raises itself.) Her slogan is "Feel Yourself". Isabella Garnell (Glenda Jackson) - a self-obsessed, pretentious lady whose speeches are borrowed wholesale from Illinois governor Adlai Stevenson. She has most of what she says recorded on tape. The third-party candidate is Dr. Gil Gainey (Paul Dooley) - salesperson for "Vita-Sea" (a powdered kelp product) who constantly pretends to have drowned to draw attention. The cast of characters also includes White House representative Gloria Burbank (Carol Burnett) and Esther Brill's campaign manager, Harry Wolff (James Garner) - who also happens to be Gloria's ex-husband.

Critics of the film complain that it lampoons the American political scene too directly, and lacks subtlety - but this is exactly why I enjoyed HealtH so much. It's naked lampooning and the way it obviously has everyone stand in for something that's easily observable in 1970s politics gives the film a broad kind of power, and keeps it from being too pretentious. Altman isn't trying to make incisive points, but is instead harnessing the ridiculous and using it to power his distinct brand of comedy and moviemaking. Most of all - for the first time in a while for Altman - the whole cast look like they're having the time of their lives. James Garner would go on to often state that he had a great time on location at the Don CeSar, and Carol Burnett looks to be hitting a manic groove as a lady who becomes sexually aroused by being scared. The silly ways Harry does nothing to sooth her when she comes to him with conspiratorial fright, or the way she holds him when she thinks she's seen a dead body are priceless. I loved the energy they had - and because Altman has taken a step back from his '48-character' experimentation in films like A Wedding, we get to enjoy it all the more.

Henry Gibson appears in his 4th Altman film here, as dirty trickster Bobby Hammer - you can see how everyone lived under the apprehension of Nixon politics becoming the norm during this period. Paul Dooley's relationship with the director had advanced to him being a cowriter on HealtH - this was his 3rd Altman film. Allan F. Nicholls - who'd go on to co-direct with Altman on 2nd unit duties in the 80s and 90s is appearing in a small role - his 5th. The performers ad-lib in a convivial atmosphere, and here things really work - there's a certain magic in the air that wasn't quite as conducive in A Wedding or A Perfect Couple. The situation is weird enough to bring out odd responses, and Alfre Woodard, close to the beginning of her career, gives a wonderfully hesitant yet drawn out answer to an interviewer's question on just how strange this particular convention is. That's among many moments that I really liked, and this is another of those Altman movies that have too much packed in to take in on a first viewing - I'll be coming back to explore this film numerous times I feel. Of course everyone talks over everyone else - we'd expect no less.

The film had me when I noticed one political candidate was taping everything she said - it's such a bare-faced presidential/Nixon trait, and I became aware that nothing was being slid under the table to me here. It was straight forward and up-front - and I wonder if the director thought he might have a more accessible movie on his hands for the first time in a while - which would be especially ironic, considering the fact that hardly anyone had the chance to see it anyway. I loved Gil Gainey and his urge for us to go with neither the extreme left nor extreme right in the election (one in which he knows he has no hope of winning, but kicking up a stink regardless) - instead, he wants us to vote for him, the "Extreme Middle". Also, another piece of wisdom from a candidate that sure feels true - "When you're that crazy, everybody believes you." Indeed - who would make something like that up? They must be telling the truth. I think a lot came to the cast in the moment, with politics being an especially easy inspiration for tomfoolery. It always has been.

So, where did this film end up? After being replaced at the last minute with 20th Century Fox's Oh, Heavenly Dog (says a lot about the industry, that a Chevy Chase stinker would replace a good Altman film) and only existing for a couple of arthouse showings after poor test screenings, Altman himself re-released it in April 1982. Ronald Reagan watched it the same year, at Camp David, and called it "the world's worst movie" (I'm sure he loved Oh, Heavenly Dog - it would figure.) It wasn't deserving of any of that - and although it teeters on cult status just because of it's tortured existence these last 40-plus years, it's yet to have it's day. It simply hasn't been released properly in any form. It's no masterpiece, but it's one of Altman's good movies - and the most fun since Nashville in '75 (a film it's often compared to, and along with it's political commentary it does bear a striking resemblance to this classic.) I finally fell in love with Carol Burnett here as a performer and person - she's terrific, and so energetic. Lauren Bacall is wonderfully infuriating. James Garner is purely a sex object. Dick Cavett appears as himself, covering the convention, and watching his rival Johnny Carson's every move on television each night.

Set against bright pastel colours in sunny Florida, on location at the Don CeSar, Altman also collaborated with Frank Barhydt on the screenplay (they'd done Quintet together, and would go on to collaborate on Short Cuts and Kansas City.) There's nothing overly special about the cinematography or music in it - although "The Steinettes", Altman's a cappella doo-wop street quartet, get to sing a lot of songs and otherwise brighten the mood. They'd reappear in Popeye. It all positively adds to the movie, and is another reason to look on it as undeserving of it's underseen status. I have to admit - after watching Quintet and A Perfect Couple, I was not expecting much from HealtH. Lowered expectations help a person enjoy a film, but this was an absolute return to form for Robert Altman and a film that feels like it puts forward the best of what he could offer comedy-wise as it gives to us his own personal brand of political satire. It's not for everyone (especially people not familiar with his work) - and I can understand why test screenings would go badly - but for those with that acquired taste, I'm sure it would poll much better and be voted for favourably amongst fans. That is, as long as they can find it to actually have a chance of seeing it.