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All That Jazz

Robert Altman finds his way home to Kansas City

At once brutally cynical and romantically nostalgic, Robert Altman's Kansas City is a moody and bluesy pipe dream of a movie. Altman describes it as his "jazz memory," and that sounds about right. It is not, strictly speaking, an autobiographical work. But it is a fanciful and freewheeling evocation of the wide-open town where Altman was born, raised and exposed to lots of great music.

The year is 1934. In the Kansas City reimagined by Altman and co-writer Frank Barhydt, the fix is in and the joints are jumping. Blacks and whites enjoy a warily peaceful coexistence, as do corrupt politicians and turf-conscious gangsters. Booze and votes are cheap. And so, evidently, is life.

There are laws on the books to prohibit gambling, prostitution and various other forms of antisocial behavior, but hardly anyone pays them any heed. That's not to say, however, that anything goes. There are certain unwritten rules that everyone is expected to follow, rules that are broken only by the uncommonly brave or the singularly stupid. When a federal agent tries to keep some well-bribed bums from voting for the third or fourth time in a single afternoon, he is casually gunned down by mobsters. (The matter-of-fact quality of the violence, coupled with the anonymous agent's frantic cries for mercy, makes this brief but intense scene much more shocking than all the bang-bang mayhem in a dozen summer blockbusters. In just a few seconds, Altman puts the sting back into on-screen death.) And when a smalltime thief robs the favorite gambling customer of a local crime boss, he is quickly apprehended and dragged to the boss for rough justice.

Seldom Seen, the crime boss, is a raspy-voiced dandy played with cranky grandiloquence by Harry Belafonte. As an African-American, Seldom isn't angry just because someone lifted the bankroll of his favorite mark before he could do so. No, what really upsets Seldom is the racial insensitivity of the thief. Johnny O'Hara (Dermot Mulroney), the none-too-bright stickup artist, is a white guy who disguised himself by wearing blackface makeup. For Seldom, it's nothing short of a personal insult that his mark was "held up by Amos and Andy!"

While Seldom and his hoods toy with Johnny in the basement of the Hey Hey Club, a hot jazz joint where a round-the-clock jam session is in progress, Johnny's wife takes drastic measures to save her man. Armed with a pistol and a hard-bitten attitude, Blondie O'Hara (Jennifer Jason Leigh) kidnaps Carolyn Stilton (Miranda Richardson), the wealthy wife of a local politico (Michael Murphy) who is a trusted adviser to President Roosevelt. Blondie, who's seen too many movies and read too many pulp magazines for her own good, figures that if she holds on to Mrs. Stilton long enough, Mr. Stilton will be able to get her husband away from Seldom Seen. Because, after all, Mr. Stilton is an influential fellow. Right?

One thing leads to another, as they always do in a Robert Altman film, and the intersecting subplots begin to spin as wheels within wheels. Blondie tries her best to look and sound as tough as her favorite movie star, Jean Harlow, as she drags Mrs. Stilton from hiding place to hiding place. (Her idea of snappy patter: "You're not gonna go all yellow-pants on me, are ya?") The longer they're together, however, the closer the women get to some sort of mutual understanding. Indeed, by the end of the movie, one of the women understands the other so well that she feels compelled to perform a violent act of mercy.

Meanwhile, back in the basement at the Hey Hey Club, Seldom continues to rant about the arrogant stupidity of white people in general and Johnny in particular. (Blacks, too, are targets for his wrath; he's every bit as insulting when discussing Marcus Garvey and the whole back-to-Africa movement.) Upstairs, such luminaries as Coleman Hawkins (Craig Handy), Lester Young (Joshua Redman) and Ben Webster (James Carter) are jamming and jousting, sometimes playing together, sometimes trying to outdo each other in "cutting" contests. Most of this happens under the admiring gaze of a young Charlie Parker (Albert J. Burnes), who eventually goes home to his mother's boarding house -- which just happens to be one of the many places where Blondie and Mrs. Stilton seek refuge.

The rambunctious raffishness of Kansas City is a pleasure to savor, particularly for anyone who endured the pointless misanthropy of Altman's last movie, the tediously mean-spirited Ready to Wear. Throughout his new film, Altman is almost giddy in his eagerness to share his zestful enthusiasm for jazz of the sort that pulsated in Kansas City clubs during his youth. In fact, Altman is so fond of this vibrant music, he occasionally allows the movie to simply pause for an extended riff on the Hey Hey Club stage, as real-life jazz greats respectfully impersonate the legends of yesteryear. You can almost hear Altman saying, "Yeah, okay, we'll get back to the plot in just a few minutes -- but, meanwhile, listen to this!" It's difficult not to share his enthusiasm.

Belafonte often sounds as though he, too, is riffing, in monologues that have the cascading vitality of inspired improvisation. His Seldom Seen is by far the most dynamic figure in Kansas City, and the movie always seems a little less substantial when he isn't around. Unfortunately, he doesn't have as much on-screen time as Jennifer Jason Leigh, whose mannered performance as Blondie confirms every dark suspicion raised by her recent, overwrought work in Georgia. There was a time not so long ago when Leigh believed in economy of gesture and delicacy of nuance. Not anymore. Nowadays, Leigh wants you to be aware every second that she's acting, dammit, and those Academy voters better get off their duffs and fork over a Best Actress nomination.

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