Although Altman was a 9-year-old boy growing up in Kansas City at the time of the action, 1934, there is nothing in the crime-and-corruption-laced drama to suggest an autobiographical element, save for the tasty memories of the "18th and Vine" district, which was a mecca for black musicians at a time when clubs in many cities were shutting down. Far from a warm depiction of a childhood world, pic has the feel of a drug-induced reverie of a particularly bleak moment when desperate times drove people
Although Altman was a 9-year-old boy growing up in Kansas City at the time of the action, 1934, there is nothing in the crime-and-corruption-laced drama to suggest an autobiographical element, save for the tasty memories of the “18th and Vine” district, which was a mecca for black musicians at a time when clubs in many cities were shutting down. Far from a warm depiction of a childhood world, pic has the feel of a drug-induced reverie of a particularly bleak moment when desperate times drove people
in all strata of society to extreme, cruel and lawless acts that defied the ideals upon which the country was supposedly based.
In other words, this is another of Altman’s merciless critiques of the illusions perpetuated by American culture, business and politics. It’s a bitter pill unleavened by sympathetic characters or any mellowness of age. Film could be seen as something of a companion piece to the director’s earlier study of Depression-era criminality, “Thieves Like Us.”
Disorienting opening sequence has a rather trashy little dame barge into a grand home, threaten the bewildered lady of the house with a gun and give her drugs. This desultory encounter is interrupted by some patented Altman cross-cutting to some jamming at the Hey-Hey Club and the introduction of some secondary characters at the train station. It soon comes out that the interloper , 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 pulls the dimwitted scheme of robbing a big black gambler, a crime for which he is easily apprehended by Hey-Hey Club owner and underworld kingpin Seldom Seen (Harry Belafonte). Between sets and “cutting contests” by the likes of Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins, Seldom Seen tortures and toys with O’Hara, while Blondie leads the laudanum-addicted Carolyn around town in a meandering search for her dense hubby.
Carolyn is forced to drag her own husband, a top FDR adviser, into the sordid doings, which all occur against the backdrop of the 1934 national Election Day. Increasingly through the pic, a vicious mob thug (Steve Buscemi) is seen rounding up derelicts, drunks and the unemployed to send them out to vote the Party line; his murderous response to interference is the pic’s most startling moment.
But the core of the yarn remains the curious odyssey of the two wildly mismatched women. Blondie, who is as hard and brittle as Carolyn is soft and unfocused, holds the upper hand most of the time due to her gun and sense of mission, but separate dynamics begin operating as well that result in a good deal of give-and-take. 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.
But if one surrenders to the dreamlike mood fostered by the music, milieu and , by association, Carolyn’s drug intake, there is a certain mangy logic to it all, as well as the feel of a sharp jolt to the system, cushioned by sedatives. For Altman, this is a major statement about American hypocrisy and society’s haves and have-nots, in line with many of his films, but issued in a kind of offhand way that delivers only glancing emotional impact.
It is particularly hard to get a handle on Blondie, played by Leigh at her most eccentric. Sketching an ill-educated floozie with plenty of illusions and bad teeth, Leigh chews her lips a lot and expertly reveals her character’s quicksilver ability to shift suddenly from relaxed self-revelation to threatening callousness. To place such a misguided little hick at the center of the story was certainly daring, and not all viewers will go for her.
Richardson plays the social-register type gone awry 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, but he still can’t help but exude a charismatic charm. Supporting turns are solid and unflashy.
The omnipresent jazz score is a constant pleasure, and while what goes on in the club isn’t central to the main dramatic action, one of the film’s most electrifying scenes, a saxbattle, occurs there. Throughout, Stephen Altman’s production design provides a terrifically atmospheric world for the characters to inhabit, a feel enhanced by Dona Granata’s rich costumes and Oliver Stapleton’s sharp lensing, which is harder and cooler than the usual burnished visuals in Altman films.
The same story could have been played for conventional suspense and much more violence. As usual, Altman goes his own way, omitting scenes more straightforward filmmakers would have emphasized in order to dwell on offbeat character work and the gradual composition of a particularly sordid and sad portrait of an America gone sour.