In a joke that runs through Robert Altman's Ready to Wear (Pret-é-Porter), dogs keep leaving droppings on the street and on the posh floors of mansions and hotels, and people keep stepping in it. Smoosh. Even if you've seen Altman's Brewster McCloud (1970), which featured a similar running gag (the villains in that acerbic fairy tale were assaulted by bird doo), it's dispiriting to watch him try to wring laughs out of a jape this broadly infantile a gross-out version of characters slipping on banana peels. The joke becomes Altman's indelicate way of sneering at everyone on screen, of letting us know that, whatever their pretensions, these people are just fancy fools gallivanting in excrement.
Ready to Wear is set in Paris, during the week in which the world's hottest fashion designers gather to unveil their pret-é-porter collections in a series of dazzlingly gaudy runway shows. The movie is another multicharacter Altman extravaganza, this one featuring models, designers, photographers, magazine editors the chic royalty of the industry as well as cameos by such fashion-world luminaries as Jean-Paul Gaultier, Thierry Mugler, and Christy Turlington, who appear as themselves. As the big, colorful cast swirls in front of us, we wait, eagerly, for a glimpse of the Altman magic. What we discover instead is that virtually everyone on screen is playing a one-joke cipher.
Three top fashion-magazine editors (Tracey Ullman, Linda Hunt, and Sally Kellerman), dithering backbiters all, will do anything to win an exclusive contract with a famous photographer (Stephen Rea), who amuses himself by humiliating each one of them. A French designer's loutish son (Rupert Everett), married to a gorgeous model (Georgianna Robertson), carries on an affair with her model sister (Tara Leon). A bigwig (Jean-Pierre Cassel) engaged in some sort of murky intrigue chokes to death on a ham sandwich -- but his death is ruled a homicide, and his cohort (Marcello Mastroianni) spends the movie being hunted by the police. A reporter (Tim Robbins) gets stuck sharing a hotel room with a colleague (Julia Roberts) who has a bad habit of guzzling wine like water and then hopping into bed with whoever's handy. Roberts and Robbins are charming together, but it's a tad depressing to realize that the film's liveliest section is a glorified episode of ''Love, American Style.''
When Altman is working at the height of his artistry (''Nashville,'' ''Short Cuts''), his movies are teeming human pageants that mirror life in all its spontaneity and force. In ''Ready to Wear,'' the familiar Altman devices are all in place -- the bubbly polyphonic dialogue, the overlapped narratives, the offhand texture of clutter and coincidence -- but they've lost their exuberance and soul. Virtually everything that happens is held up for our ridicule, yet it's never quite clear what we're supposed to be laughing at. The characters aren't really mocked for their attitudes, their obsessions with glamour and money and style. They aren't savaged in any specific, observational ways that could truly be called satirical. They're made fun of simply because they're silly, trivial human beings -- walking punchlines in a joke that never arrives. It's like watching an Altman film that's been drained by a vampire.
''Ready to Wear'' is messy and vaguely nasty -- a blur with attitude. The film might just as well have been about a convention of pipe-cleaner salesmen. Altman, an unreconstructed Yankee, seems tentative and cramped amid the blase Euro-elite; on some level he doesn't know what to make of them. Yet it isn't just the setting that defeats him. It's the vagaries of the fashion industry.
Like advertising, fashion has entered its Warhol phase. It outwits satire by satirizing itself, presenting ''style'' as a glitzy capitalist debauch. But the arch, knowing, flash-meets-trash sensibility of contemporary fashion eludes Altman completely, and so do the personalities of the designers -- a new breed of postmodern corporate artiste. At one point he has two of them who seem like opposites, a black hipster (Forest Whitaker) who specializes in ''street'' design and an aristocratic, purse-lipped British queen (Richard E. Grant) with a curl of hair like Betty Boop's, carry on a frantically torrid affair. How outrageous! This silliness crumbles to nothing, though, when you see the footage Altman shot of the actual Paris shows -- high-glam spectacles set to a clanging disco beat. With their future-vamp supermodels, their clothes that seem to have come out of a dream merging heterosexual and homosexual fantasy, the shows have a hard-edged surface excitement that blows away Altman's tepid stabs at ridicule. At the end, when he unveils his ultimate joke -- models walking down the runway nude -- we realize, with dismay, that it's meant to be some sort of big, crowning statement, and that we have absolutely no idea what it means.