The Emperor Has No Clothes

The merry widow is being pursued by the last man to see her husband alive (Marcello Mastroianni), who is in turn wanted by the police for the council head's "murder." Meanwhile (a word that comes in handy whenever you try to describe one of these Altman multicharacter extravaganzas), a pair of American journalists (Julia Roberts and Tim Robbins) meet cute, get stuck rooming together, bicker, and tumble into bed, where they spend the rest of the film. Roberts is not credible for one second as the frumpy, lost waif who arrives at the airport dazed and confused, but once she and Robbins find themselves alone in the room and uncork her weakness for bubbly, their shared chemistry is one of the film's highlights. It's a guilty pleasure, though; their coupling is about as sophisticated as a Love Boat romance and totally irrelevant to the rest of the film.

Meanwhile, a jaded, sunglasses-wearing photographer (Stephen Rea) takes turns seducing and humiliating "the Paris troika" A three top fashion-magazine editors (Linda Hunt, Sally Kellerman, and Tracey Ullman). Meanwhile, a cigar-smoking Midwestern department store buyer with a secret (Danny Aiello) meets furtively with his shopaholic wife (Teri Garr), who, for reasons never made clear, is staying in a separate hotel. Meanwhile, a pair of gay male designer divas (Forest Whitaker and Richard E. Grant) conducts an illicit affair while their respective "mates" seek out a little tryst of their own. Meanwhile, meanwhile, meanwhile! The planets orbit but there is no sun at the center of their revolution. The closest thing to a unifying element this movie has is the clueless TV reporter (Kim Basinger) who keeps popping up to ask stupid questions and then disappear again.

Maybe it wouldn't play so shallow if Altman had something more original to say than "it's not what you wear, it's what's inside that counts." Or if he'd come up with a subtler running gag to dress down his self-important subjects than having them all step in dog shit. Or if he'd really sunk his teeth into a few designers, rather than letting the Gaulthiers, Rykiels, and Muglers saunter through his film unscathed while the director created designer caricatures so broad their lampooning would offend no one. This is, after all, a milieu in which a few words from Cher can sound like a welcome voice of reason; could it be the master satirist got too close to some of his subjects to appreciate their potential for parody? Scarier still, could Altman, in spite of his best "clothes-are-superficial" intentions, have been seduced by the sparkle and the glamour?

It's as if the director's heart wasn't really in it. Oh, sure, there are lots of laughs, although many of the best lines (Ullman's slurring of Rea in particular) were improvised by the actors. Once again the Altman name has brought out the stars; as usual the cast provides some exquisite support (and yet the performances here are, as a rule, a notch below the exemplary ensemble work in Nashville and Short Cuts). Loren and Mastroianni bring a dash of continental class; Robbins and Roberts do their part for the Budweiser and Burger King set. And Altman still has a way with a set piece; he even gives the interloper-hiding-in-the-closet shtick a fresh twist.

There are those who feel that mediocre Altman is better than none at all. Ready to Wear should test that theory. At times too soft on real-life subjects ripe for skewering, at other times too harsh on shallow, unimportant characters inflated solely so that he can puncture them, Altman's gifts for witty dialogue and telling observational detail are not enough to veil the material's diaphanous texture. Sheer is one thing, but this Ready to Wear is so thin it's transparent.

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