Kansas City

on August 16, 1996 by Kim Williamson
   "Works fast, huh?" says blue-collar, movie-lovin' Blondie O'Hara (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to blue-blood mansion wife Carolyn Stilton (Miranda Richardson) as a swallow of laudanum quickly calms the latter--despite the fact Blondie has a gun on her. Telegraph operator and gal-about-town Blondie is kidnapping Carolyn so that her high-placed husband, Henry Stilton (Michael Murphy), will pull some strings to spring Blondie's small-time crook of a husband, Johnny O'Hara ("Living in Oblivion's" Dermot Mulroney), from the clutches of a local gangster, Seldom Seen (Harry Belafonte), who runs a gambling joint/jazz bar called the Hey-Hey Club.
   Working anything but fast is Robert Altman's "Kansas City," characterizable by the activities of its two main characters: The film moves with the slowness of an opium daze, and it transmits its plot information with the incremental dit-dot-dash of a wire message. But it never feels lethargic; though the audience is 45 minutes into the movie before most of the key plot elements are disclosed, "Kansas City" exhibits the slow and sure hand of a master cinematician, telling his tale with a flow and breadth like that of his city's mighty Missouri River.
   But not the depth. This look at the "Paris of the Plains" in the 1930s, when the Depression reigned elsewhere but mafia moves, machine politics, booze and blues ruled K.C., never comes together conceptually or emotionally. Provocative elements are present--broad- canvas stuff like political gundowns and class and racial stresses, along with personal-level affairs like the loss of a first child--but they remain nothing more than parts of a pastiche. In the lead, Jennifer Jason Leigh is little help; although she's long been accused, perhaps unfairly, of taking only over-the-edge roles, this is the first time the actress is guilty of being just plain bad. Her Blondie never becomes more than tics, and more than just Blondie's overdone cosmetics seems left over from Leigh's turn in "Georgia." As her foil, Richardson fares better; she's done a comatose characterization before in "Tom & Viv," but her Carolyn is a fresh creation. However, "Kansas City"--even in a climactic scene of gunfire--never allows her Carolyn to advance beyond her lethargy. When Carolyn closes the movie with the enigmatic line, "You know what I didn't do today? Vote," we realize that not only didn't the movie's political milieu ever become real, neither did the movie itself.    Starring Jennifer Jason Leigh, Miranda Richardson and Harry Belafonte. Directed and produced by Robert Altman. Written by Robert Altman and Frank Barhydt. A Fine Line release. Drama. Rated R for language, and for some violence and drug use. Running time: 116 min.
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