The Emperor Has No Clothes

Robert Altman is the most feared slugger in American cinema. When he really connects, as he has in the past with M*A*S*H, Nashville, and The Player, he knocks the ball out of the park. So powerful is his stroke that even when he's just trying to make contact he's still capable of hitting a home run (McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye, Short Cuts). And when he strikes out, he does so spectacularly (Health, Popeye).

Unfortunately, like Mighty Casey swinging for the fences and missing on a fat changeup, Altman whiffs with Ready to Wear (originally titled Pret-a-porter), his much ballyhooed at-bat against the fashion industry. Maybe the world of haute couture is so deliberately outlandish that it is beyond satire. Maybe the target was just so big that Altman couldn't find its center and lost his focus. And maybe directorial hubris just flat did him in. The man has been riding high; perhaps he was due for a fall.

Few directors' careers have seen as many ups and downs as Altman's. In 1970 M*A*S*H established him as cinematic satirist par excellence, with just the right mixture of cynicism and irreverence to close out the turbulent Sixties. The film was both a critical and commercial breakthrough for the director, but he squandered much of the good will he had accrued with the Woodstock Nation when he followed up with Brewster McCloud, a bizarre, quirky bit of whimsy about an owlish boy (Bud Cort) who dreamed of taking wing and flying inside the Houston Astrodome. While the film had its merits, it was not perceived as being nearly as hip or as timely as M*A*S*H. Reviews were mixed, and except for a budding cult of Altman believers, the rest of the moviegoing public stayed away in droves, as they did for his next three pictures A McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), Images (1972), and The Long Goodbye (1972) A all of which were little masterpieces that to this day regularly appear on critics' lists of underrated movies (Pauline Kael, for example, loved The Long Goodbye).

The cash registers rang and the headlines screamed again with the release of Altman's visionary Nashville in 1975, the first of his sprawling multicharacter opuses. The scathing attack on hypocrisy in country music -- and by extension America itself -- won Altman the sort of critical respect usually reserved for the Fellinis and the Bergmans of the world; the film made Robert Altman a household name in London, Paris, and Berlin. But just as he had followed M*A*S*H with a string of small-scale pearls, he succeeded Nashville with Buffalo Bill and the Indians and 3 Women, neither of which approached Nashville in scope or commercial appeal. In an attempt to recapture some of the old magic, Altman co-wrote and directed A Wedding in 1978. The movie, a sort of jaundiced American forerunner of Four Weddings and a Funeral, was by turns funny, poignant, farcical, and tragic. But it wasn't Nashville and suffered by comparison. Altman's career went into a slide that accelerated with the failure of his so-called comeback film, Popeye, in 1980, and skidded through 1987's Beyond Therapy and O.C. and Stiggs. Ironically, it was a TV miniseries (Altman cut his teeth in television) about a fictitious presidential election campaign, Tanner '88, produced for HBO and written by Garry (Doonesbury) Trudeau, that garnered positive notices and re-established Altman's credentials as a satirist.

His career and reputation rebounded strongly in the Nineties on the strength of Vincent and Theo (a little-seen but critically acclaimed gem), The Player, and Short Cuts. That Altman was able to skewer Hollywood pretense so deftly in The Player should have come as no surprise when one considers that the man carries the battle scars of three decades in the trenches.

All of which may go a long way toward explaining why Ready to Wear is so ragged. Robert Altman may know about hype and hustlers and hangers-on, but what does he know about fashion? While his camera pokes and swirls through that baroque and bizarre netherworld, he never really seems to grasp it. You feel like you're on one of those museum tours led by a clever and articulate guide who just took a crash course in art the week before.

Ready to Wear threads together roughly a dozen subplots, chief among them the suspected murder of the roundly disliked head of the fashion council. We see what really happened to the guy, however, so any suspense that story line might have held is forfeited early on. The bigwig's death occurs amid chaos; Paris is abuzz with anticipation for the Pret-a-porter, a weeklong orgy of glittery, flamboyant runway shows staged by the world's top designers. News of his death only cheers the deceased's hateful wife (Sophia Loren) even as it staggers his mistress (Anouk Aimee), a cash-strapped but highly regarded designer whose philandering son (Rupert Everett) may or may not be the dead man's offspring; and the son wants to sell mom's company out from under her to an American cowboy-boot tycoon (Lyle Lovett) with delusions of grandeur.

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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