Robert Altman has directed some of the most well known movies of all time. M*A*S*H, Gosford Park, and 1992’s The Player are some of the most critically acclaimed films in his library. His works have received numerous Oscar nods and have spanned every genre from neo-noir to political comedies. In 1996, Altman tried his hand at a 1930s crime drama.
Kansas City takes place during 1934. Blondie O’Hara (Jennifer Jason Leigh) kidnaps Carolyn Stilton (Miranda Richardson) in order to blackmail her politician husband. Along the way, the two women find they share a common bond. Meanwhile, Johnny Flynn (Steve Buscemi) tries to fix an upcoming election. The soundtrack is comprised of familiar jazz hits of the period.
Altman’s movie is an odd one. Filled with strong performances and a great premise, the film has hit written all over it. Along with Leigh and Buscemi, the cast also includes names like Harry Belafonte and Dermot Mulroney. The impressive score is akin to seeing a concert film. It is told in flashback style that allows two stories to be told at once.
And somehow the individual pieces do not come together well. The cast do a great job with Jane Adams being one of the standouts. Leigh’s performance can be a little over the top at times, though. Sometimes, she seems to be playing a caricature of the era instead of a character. During these moments, Kansas City almost seems like a comedy. While certainly noticeable, it is never bad, however.
The music is fantastic. It does not take a jazz fan to appreciate the sounds coming out of Kansas City. The score will place audiences into the time period of the movie. Altman’s film is more that just appropriately scored. Using contemporary musicians to play songs from the time give the movie an almost concert footage feel to it. It is as much a documentary as it is a crime drama.
This all ties in to the main problem with Kansas City. Filling in backstory is not new to the genre. It is an easy way to explain character motivations. That being said, when done poorly, the movie feels more like a series of segments. That is the case here. There is a tale to be told, but it never feels cohesive. It is a bunch of moments broken up by great musical pieces.
Due to the odd pacing, the movie has trouble engaging its audience. The characters are fun to watch, the plot is interesting, and the setting looks great. It simply never grabs anyone who is watching. Just when things seem to be heating up, a long musical number will break out. These add atmosphere and little else. The viewer wants to know what is going on, but the film seems content to just be stared at.
It is also hard to figure out what kind of movie Kansas City is. It is jumps between comedy and drama awkwardly. Too funny to be taken seriously but to dramatic to be a comedy, it resides in a thematic purgatory that makes it a difficult watch. If the audience cannot get a feel for a movie, they begin to stop paying attention.
Kansas City should be a great movie. It has the cast, setting, and soundtrack to make it one of the most memorable movies of director Robert Altman’s career. Unfortunately, it never comes together. Odd pacing with a disjointed story make it case of “what should have been”.