Robert Altman is perhaps the most unreliable of the great
directors. His SHORT CUTS was one of my favorite films in 1993. His
list of movies includes as many failures as successes, but his
greatness stems from his best movies. I have not seen all of his
films, but I nominate KANSAS CITY as a surefire candidate for the
bottom of the list.
The script by Robert Altman and Frank Barhydt is such a mess that
describing the plot will not convey the abyss into it sinks the
audience. In the 1930s in Kansas City a black gangster named Seldom
Seen (Harry Belafonte) is holding a white hoodlum named Johnny O'Hara
(Dermot Mulroney). In order to get her man back, gun moll and Jean
Harlow wannabe Blondie O'Hara (Jennifer Jason Leigh) kidnaps Carolyn
Stilton (Miranda Richardson). She demands that Mr. Stilton get the
governor to get the Pendergas Democratic machine to force Seldom Seen
to release Johnny.
To further complicate matters Mr. Stilton is an advisor to
President Roosevelt and is on a train to Washington. Moreover there is
an election is in progress in Kansas City which is keeping all of the
politicians busy. The Pendergas machine, which is supposedly the only
true part of the story, is getting drunks from all over the state to
vote "10-12 times each" for the Democrats using the names off of
This is a highly confusing and contrived story. None of it is
clear at first, but once you figure it out, you will not care. I spent
most of my time with mouth opened in shock at how appalling bad this
film is. Let me cover just a few examples. Belafonte is pathetic. He
talks non-stop, but since he mumbles all of his lines and talks in a
whisper, little of what he says can actually be heard. That is the
good news. When he accidentally reverts to a normal voice, you realize
that his lines are all drivel. He even has to give a racist and
anti-Semitic joke. Sad.
As truly awful as Belafonte's performance is, Leigh is much worse.
She sounds like Bugs Bunny trying to sound like Jean Harlow. It is so
bad that you find yourself laughing sometimes at Leigh's acting, and
this movie is not a parody. She too is given ridiculous and cliched
dialog like, "Move over toots." She is so gratingly bad, that you want
to cover your ears when her mouth starts to move in case she is about
to make another one of those terrible noises camouflaged as speech.
All of the acting is terrible. The only variable is how bad. The
least miserable work is delivered by Richardson as the druggie wife.
Richardson looks like she wishes she were anywhere else but in this
picture, which at least shows some good taste.
Okay, so the movie is not a total waste. There is some good jazz,
and the old cars and the sets (Stephen Altman) are fun to watch. This
is not enough to keep you confined to the theater for what seems like
an eternity but is only two hours. Escape if you find yourself caught
in there. Being a critic, I saw it all, but you shouldn't have to. It
is a completely pointless show that is incomprehensible. Finally, just
when you think Altman's film has hit bottom, it manages to come up
with an ending even worse than the rest of the picture.
KANSAS CITY runs 1:55, but you will see in two minutes what a
stinker it is and leave. It is rated R. There is nudity, drug usage
including snorting cocaine, gory spilled guts style violence, and bad
language including lots of use of the F and the N words. I would keep
all human beings away from the show, but if kids want to see it, I
think they should be at least mature teenagers. I hate this show and
am sure most people will. I generously give it 1/2 of a star.
Copyright © 1996 Steve Rhodes