Robert Altman’s eye for everything outsize, flawed, and in the end, romantic about America is the view of a sophisticated humanist. In Kansas City, he choreographs a swell story set in his hometown in 1934, when mobsters ran free and brilliant jazz filled after-hours clubs. And he almost — almost — gets the whole joint to dance.
The elegantly constructed plot mixes real and fictional characters, and centers on the woes of hard-bitten, movie-mad Blondie O’Hara (Jennifer Jason Leigh), whose dumb-thug husband, Johnny (Dermot Mulroney), is being held by vicious, jazz-loving Mob king Seldom Seen (Harry Belafonte, in a rewardingly strong performance). Blondie, in turn, kidnaps a politico’s laudanum-addicted wife (Miranda Richardson), hoping to effect a swap. As the two women roam the city overnight, the contours of their stunted lives emerge while jazz wails.
So much is satisfying in KC that its shortcomings are all the more discordant. The music, meant to re-create a famous all-night showdown between jazz legends Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young, has rightly been turned over to a great crop of contemporary young musicians, among them Craig Handy (Hawkins) and Joshua Redman (Young). Richardson is luminous and wrenching as a woman who, even in a drug haze, knows the score. Cinematographer Oliver Stapleton gives the town a lush, late-night palette the color of Vamp nail polish.
But oh, oh, oh — when that Miss Leigh gets an Acting Idea in mind, she clings to it like a terrier chomping a gym sock. So fierce and mannered is she here that any natural emotional response we might have to the sadness she means to reveal is thwarted by our attention to her thespian exploits. While he gets others to swing, Altman lets Leigh go by the metronome. So she don’t mean a thing. B-