"Kansas City" is Robert Alt-man's latest multi-charactered, stream-of-consciousness effort, set against the richly textured backdrop of 1934 Kansas City (Alt-man's hometown) during a 48-hour period.
High society types, high-rolling gangsters, corrupt politicos and two-bit punks cross paths as the city is in the throes of the Depression - which is driving some people to extreme behavior. Meanwhile, in downtown clubs, there is a creative surge in the jazz world, which provides a background element that receives some prominent treatment here. And all the while, racism is also pervasive, a casual fact of life as the film occasionally zeroes in on but never dwells on segregated public facilities."Kansas City" also boasts a central storyline, which distinguishes it from Altman's most recent films, "Short Cuts" and "Ready to Wear." But there are also the usual distractions, as the screenplay frequently veers into a number of wide-ranging, off-the-path subplots, some of which seem unnecessary and cumbersome. (Thank goodness this one is under two hours.)
Within this mishmash, the central focus is on two women, the misguided, naive-but-tough Blondie O'Hara (Jennifer Jason Leigh, at her most eccentric), who has a Jean Harlow fixation, and laudanum-addicted Carolyn Stilton (the marvelous Miranda Richardson), the socialite wife of a high-ranking politician (Michael Murphy).
As the film opens, Blondie busts into Carolyn's home and kidnaps her at gunpoint. Gradually, we discover that Blondie plans to use Carolyn in a convoluted plan to save her husband, a minor-league thief named Johnny (Dermot Mul-roney) who is in the hands of black mobster Seldom Seen (Harry Belafonte, very effective in an uncharacteristically nasty role).
Dimwitted thug that he is, Johnny has robbed a black gambler who just rolled into town. It was Seldom's money, of course - and to add insult to injury, Johnny performed the robbery in black face, hoping to throw them off.
But Seldom has quickly rounded him up, and as the film progresses, Altman shifts the action most frequently between scenes of Blondie's ill-fated, meandering search for her husband (with Carolyn in tow) and Seldom's gleeful torture of Johnny in the backroom of his night spot, the Hey-Hey Club.
Altman has never been a straight-narrative filmmaker, but with "Kansas City," the story (or stories) almost seem beside the point. Altman is obviously more interested in human behavior and situational ethics, laced with cockeyed comedy, and what's going on in the background is as important to him as what's going on in the foreground.
This makes for fractured movie, but it certainly has its moments.
The performances are all solid, although Steve Buscemi, as a thug who's in charge of rounding up votes among the city's disenfranchised, doesn't have much to do.
But the primary players - Leigh and Richardson - are at the disadvantage of having to fill in a lot of gaps for their skimpily written characters. Leigh does so with her usual flamboyant weirdness (including bad teeth), while Richardson is more subtle - and the contrast is sometimes fascinating. On the other hand, Belafonte's foul-mouthed gangster (with several lengthy monologues) may shock his fans, but the actor seems to be reveling in the role.
What "Kansas City" really needs is some kind of dramatic punch. There are visceral shocks and unexpected moments of graphic violence (this is as close to either "The Godfather" or "Pulp Fiction" as Altman is likely to come), but it all seems pretty anemic. Altman's attention to detail as he wanders around the sidelines may be personally fulfilling, but it's likely to leave the audience feeling underwhelmed.
On the plus side, that music is terrific, built tentatively around the viewpoint of young Charlie Parker, who watches from the Hey-Hey Club balcony as jazz greats Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young and others perform. Music fans can bask in the tunes that continue to play out when the action gets sluggish.
"Kansas City" is rated R for violence, some gore, profanity, vulgarity, racial epithets and drug abuse.