Sooner or Later, Everyone's Got to Go
I must confess that I haven't seen a lot of Robert Altman films. This includes having missed a lot of the classics, though I have one coming up relatively soon. The funny thing is that I think all the movies of his that I've seen all the way through recently enough to remember have been ensemble pieces except [i]Popeye[/i]. In my brain, this is now one of the defining characteristics of an Altman film. Now, this one revolves around a single plot, as opposed to several plots revolving around a single event. So that's different. Still, this movie, too, is more about the characters than what they're doing. What they're doing is merely why they are now together. There has to be a reason, even if the reason doesn't necessarily have to make sense.
The short version is that Johnny O'Hara (Dermot Mulroney) robbed a guy in a cab, Sheepshan Red (A. C. Tony Smith). Unfortunately for him, Sheepshan was heading off to meet local racketeer Seldom Seen (Harry Belafonte) for a spot of gambling, and Johnny got all of Sheepshan's money. Johnny thought he'd get away with it, because he was in blackface, but his plan falls apart anyway. In order to save his life, his wife, Blondie (Jennifer Jason Leigh), kidnaps Carolyn Stilton (Miranda Richardson), wife of a local political bigwig, Henry Stilton (Michael Murphy). She contacts Stilton, who is out of town, and tells him that Johnny and Carolyn are now tied together--if Seldom kills Johnny, Blondie will kill Carolyn. What's more, Blondie's sister, Babe (Brooke Smith), is married to Johnny Flynn (Steve Buscemi), a low-level political figure who's getting out the vote for the Democrats. Over and over again.
There are, of course, several layers of society which we see here. Nettie Bolt (Jane Adams) of the Junior League is at the same level as the Stiltons, but she also knows Blondie as is at the train station when we first see her so that she can meet Pearl Cummings (Ajia Mignon Johnson), a fourteen-year-old black girl in Kansas City so that she can have her baby. Johnny Flynn connects to John Lazia (Joe Digirolamo), slightly higher up the political chain, who connects to Stilton. Johnny Flynn (one of the things Carolyn says which makes sense is vague surprise that both sisters married someone named Johnny) is rounding up drunks and vagrants to vote Democrat for Lazia, and Lazia is called on to rescue Johnny O'Hara. In theory, Seldom Seen is below Johnny O'Hara on the spectrum, on the grounds of Seldom is black, but in practice, no one really believes that.
Blondie is fixated on Jean Harlow, having based her look and attitude on her. She points out with no little pride that Jean Harlow was from Kansas City, as was Joan Crawford. But she thinks Joan Crawford is cheap. The thing is, whether you believe Jean Harlow was cheap or not, and a lot of people did, she was someone who'd reinvented herself. I mean, for one thing, as a separate person from her mother! But half the cast of this movie either wants to be or is pretending to be someone they're not, as I have to say, there are worse people to pretend to be than Jean Harlow. No, I'm sure she wasn't the smartest woman in Hollywood. At very least, Hedy Lamarr was already in Hollywood by the time this movie is set. But seen from the perspective of the fan magazines, Jean Harlow had everything Blondie could possibly want, whereas Blondie was married to a guy like Johnny O'Hara.
The best part of this movie is the visual style. It's great that Harry Belafonte ad libbed most of his own part and wrote most of the rest. It's fascinating how much attention to detail is in the movie; the Marcus Garvey jokes probably aren't funny to much of a modern audience, though I'm sure a few of them are. The ones that don't rely on actually knowing who Marcus Garvey was. I guess the movie doesn't really rely on your knowing who Jean Harlow was, though there's more depth to the movie if you know that as well. Altman apparently recorded more than another film's worth of the jazz musicians' performances. That would probably have been more worth watching, though I can't say as I would have had much to say about it, either. This is not Altman's finest; I have no intention of watching it a second time. But my, it's a [i]pretty[/i] film.