The term collection has rarely been used more loosely. Packaging Robert Altman’s first big hit, 1970’s M*A*S*H, with three loopy films made in rapid succession — 1978’s A Wedding and 1979’s Quintet and A Perfect Couple — then trying to pass it off as a must-own is like throwing Blonde on Blonde plus Street-Legal, Dylan & the Dead, and a paperback of Tarantula into a box and calling it a Bob Dylan Collection.
I won’t spend much time on M*A*S*H — is anyone unfamiliar with this war satire? Initially refreshing for its irreverence and innovative use of overlapping dialogue, M*A*S*H is still funny, but also feels dated: The Korean War-as-anti-Vietnam metaphor can be lost on a viewer distracted by how smugly retrograde the director was in characterizing the movie’s women.
As for the other films, A Wedding is one of Altman’s exercises in large-cast, shaggy-dog storytelling. Starring Desi Arnaz Jr. as a callow groom, the film tries to say something about culture clash — his family is all hushed inherited wealth, the bride’s dad (harrumphing Dooley) is loud and nouveau riche — but contains only one arresting subplot: a spontaneous romance between two guests, played brilliantly by a high-strung Burnett and graceful giant Pat McCormick (who wrote jokes for Johnny Carson and other comedians).
Fleeing the hothouse atmosphere of A Wedding, Altman hied off to Montreal for the snow-white murkiness of Quintet, with Newman as a post-apocalyptic hunter drawn into playing a complicated table game: The loser of each round of Quintet is murdered (no merchandising tie-in was released).
On a Perfect Couple making-of doc that’s more interesting than Couple itself, Altman says that after A Wedding, two of its actors, Dooley and Marta Heflin, stuck in his head. Once he’d finished Quintet, he quickly ginned up the tale of ”ordinary schlumps” in love. Heflin’s character sings in a rock band called Keepin’ ‘Em Off the Streets (hate that illiterate backward apostrophe in ”’Em”); its dictatorial lead singer is played by Ted Neeley, who’d been the Man Himself in Jesus Christ Superstar on Broadway. Dooley rescues Heflin from a life of musical indenture and himself from a stiflingly proper family. As a love story, it’s a dud, but Couple is an unintentionally hilarious relic of bad ’70s rock.
For anyone whose interest in the director was rekindled after seeing him receive an honorary Oscar earlier this year, this Robert Altman Collection is a bit of a cynical joke. If you’re looking for lesser-known but better Altman, go for 1974’s lyrical Thieves Like Us, or California Split, the fab gambling flick with Elliott Gould and George Segal. Heck, better 1980’s Popeye than Quintet… and that may be the only time you’ll catch me recommending Robin Williams over Paul Newman. M*A*S*H: B+ A Wedding: C+ Quintet: D A Perfect Couple: C+