Kansas City is a piece of cold nostalgia, a darkly dreamy tour of Depression-era America that brings together the opposite ends of the class spectrum and emphasizes the most unsavory aspects of the democratic political process. Although it focuses upon two very off-center white female characters, Robert Altman’s period-drenched meller basks in the glory of the 1930s black jazz that flourished in his hometown, and the music furnishes a flavorsome distraction even when the narrative riffs onto some weird sidings.
Blondie O’Hara (Jennifer Jason Leigh), has hatched a cockeyed scheme by which she hopes that kidnapping Carolyn Stilton (Miranda Richardson), the socialite wife of Democratic party bigwig Henry Stilton (Michael Murphy), will somehow get her back her husband, two-bit hood Johnny O’Hara (Dermot Mulroney), who’s disappeared.
Unfortunately, Johnny has pulled a dimwitted robbery for which he is easily apprehended by Hey-Hey Club owner and underworld kingpin Seldom Seen (Harry Belafonte). Meanwhile Blondie, who likes to think she’s Jean Harlow, a Kansas City native, drags the laudanum-addicted Carolyn with her in her meandering search for dense hubby.
The core of the yarn remains the curious odyssey of the two wildly mismatched women. Script by Altman and his Short Cuts co-writer, Frank Barhydt, presents more of a situation than a story, and occasional lulls in the roughly 24-hour narrative that indulge character interplay create as much exasperation as insight.
Blondie is played by Leigh at her most eccentric, sketching an ill-educated floozie with plenty of illusions and bad teeth. Richardson plays with great subtlety and finesse, although the script supplies neither much background on her character nor reasons to take a strong interest in her. Belafonte invests his slick gangster with a harsh toughness never before seen from the actor.
The omnipresent jazz score is a constant pleasure.