Film Review

THE ROBERT ALTMAN FILES: A PERFECT COUPLE (1979)

Coming off the universally reviled and glum Quintet, Robert Altman began to move back toward the warmth of human relationships with A Perfect Couple, a lighthearted romantic-comedy that tracks a mismatched couple through a series of sweet-natured misadventures as they connect, decouple, and reconnect. Put against Paul Newman’s fight for survival in a world not fit to survive, the synopsis of a middle-aged man (Paul Dooley) falling in love with a backup vocalist in a rock band (Marta Heflin) probably seemed much more in tune with what moviegoers in 1979 were wanting. Unfortunately, Altman wasn’t in much of a mood to tackle such a light project and as a result of being weighed down by a number of elements on top of which it can never seem to climb, A Perfect Couple both registers as one of Altman’s weakest efforts and the one that marked the end of his relationship with 20th Century Fox as his fifth picture delivered to them, 1980’s HealtH, would slowly bump its way down their release schedule, eventually dropping off of it completely, never to return.

The movie opens promising enough as Alex Theodopoulis (Dooley) and Shiela Shea (Heflin) enjoy an outdoor performance at the Hollywood Bowl of the LA Philharmonic, for which his sister, Eleouisa (Belita Moreno), is a cellist. As a torrential downpour disperses the crowd and ends the concert, Alex and Sheila escape to cut short what we learn is their first date which has been powered by their participation in a video dating service. During this time we also learn that Sheila lives in a cramped loft among numerous members of Keepin’ ‘Em Off the Streets, a rock outfit she has just recently joined. Alex, on the other hand, is part of a starchy and conservative Greek family where almost nothing is done individually, Friday nights are spent watching their father (Titos Vandis) mock-conduct along to orchestral music, and men who are almost halfway done with their entire existence on this planet still have to ask for permission to go on a date.

All of this is to set up a story of opposites where two sides of a relationship are viewed with elements in both sets of families that mirror each other and, surprisingly, this is where the film really fails. This is a movie that wants to show how clever it is by drawing parallels between the two disparate worlds but, unfortunately, neither world is appealing and Altman further cheats the audience by giving too much of one and not enough of another. One of the biggest examples of this is how Altman treats the gay characters in his film. Always one step ahead of his peers in his treatment of LBGTQ characters on the whole (most notable in the remarkable Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean), Altman wears down a lot of shoe leather discussing the inner workings of the relationships between three gay members of the band (which is commendable) but then gets tight lipped and opaque when dealing with the other side of the coin, namely, Eleouisa and her relationship to band mate Mona (Mona Golabek) which is clearly non-platonic. It’s unclear if Altman keeps it coy to underline Alex’s clueless, almost juvenile and stunted view of sex and relationships or if Altman is making a point in regards to the sad sickness in Alex’s family that causes Eleouisa to code-talk her way around it but, by doing so, he shortchanges the audience by closing off an interesting avenue for dramatic exploration.

In fact, throwing up road blocks to anything interesting is what Altman seems to do well in this movie. Almost every side character that saunters into the frame is preferable to the couple at the center. Whether it’s co-screenwriter Allan Nicholls popping up as well-meaning suitor Dana 115 or Ann Ryerson’s hilarious turn as a randy veterinarian, the urge overwhelms me to cling to their legs and beg them to take me away with them. Likewise, I’m almost certain a better movie could be made out of the exploits of Alex’s bored yet obsequious brother, Costa (Dennis Franz) and/or his creepy, effete brother-in-law, Fred Bott (Henry Gibson, fabulous as ever), both of whom feel like characters who escaped from an episode of the brilliant sitcom Soap. Hell, give me a movie featuring nothing but the exploits of the emergency room doctor, drolly played by frequent Altman collaborator Frank Barhydt and one of the few in the film who seems to understands he’s in a Robert Altman picture.

Throughout the film, Alex is an uppity scold who is continually turned off by things in both Sheila’s world and outside the confines of his own familial sarcophagus. He’s disdainful of the “weirdos” in her world but he also runs like a scared man-child when he realizes that a video date he is with likes a little slap and tickle. He seems to be a man of little intestinal fortitude, reuniting with Sheila after a disastrous video date only to leave again when he realizes that the rigors of the road and the lack of privacy just aren’t for him. His final return to her, almost insultingly, occurs only after he’s banished from his family following a left-turn tragedy that occurs in the third act and, unfortunately, one which the film simply cannot emotionally support, creating a fatal tonal imbalance. I would almost say that Alex is maybe a spiritual cousin to the distaff sexual cripples that populated 3 Women and That Cold Day in the Park excepting we see the patriarchal squeeze that makes Alex into the person he is and we are triply frustrated when he never does anything proactive about it.

Her performance maybe three slight shades of beige, Marta Heflin makes zero impression in this movie. This is a shame because Heflin is a natural and good actor (she’s underused in A Wedding and she’s perfect in Five and Dime). Only ever getting the heart pumping during a scene where she is roundly humiliated by Alex’s ridiculous family, Heflin never seems like she’s fully bought in to the relationship nor does she give off the impression that she wouldn’t be fine without it. After all and in the end, is Alex REALLY worth all the trouble she goes through in the film? But Altman and Nicholls don’t give her character much life and, like the contrast between the gay characters, the comparison between the stern patriarchs of the Theodopoulis clan and Keepin’ ‘Em Off the Streets is a cosmetic afterthought; the kind of thing you’d be able to show an elective film course made up of seventh graders as to teach about thematic balance.

This is a film that doesn’t resolve as much as it ends. It feels like a much longer film was shot but a hacksaw was taken to it and only the items that really interested Altman (namely, the stuff with the band) were left in. But, by keeping one eye on the clock and delivering a crowd pleasing rom-com (which, at just a hair under two hours, is still overlong) the cuts to the film create gaping holes and so many questions remain as the credits roll. Is Sheila now out of the band and replaced by the singer we see for the first time right before the end? How did the band and the LA Philharmonic wind up playing together at the Hollywood Bowl? Is Alex completely done with his family without ever standing up for himself? How in the world did Alex ever have a first wife without ever telling her he really liked her? Does Sheila even have a backstory? Is she so weak that she takes Alex back with no kind of discussion about his shitty attitude and his penchant for leaving her? If Altman thought he could pull a Minnie and Moskowitz and simply get by with a “love conquers all…EVEN TWO WILDLY OPPOSITE PEOPLE” movie, he missed the gritty charm and the attention to character that infused every frame of that film that made it work despite all of its logical holes and corners cut by its writer and director, John Cassavetes.

And let me pause on here to remark on the thing I most dislike about A Perfect Couple, which is the entirety of Keepin’ ‘Em Off the Streets. From their candy-ass stage routine to their insistence on using two apostrophes in their name to the soft rock musical arrangements that are so tethered to 1979 they sound like they were composed while sitting in wicker furniture and recorded under a hanging plant supported by macrame, I hate everything about this band and despise any and all moments spent with the group in rehearsal or in concert. Like a Grateful Dead full of Donna Jean Godchauxes (but only if Donna Jean Godchaux could actually carry a tune outside of the studio), this is a band far too large to be plausibly functional. Ted Neeley has the thankless role of prick band leader, Teddy, but my disdain for his character goes beyond what’s written given his stupid wardrobe and his annoying habit of jamming his hands in his pockets while he’s performing on stage. All of it combines to create a grating, overexposed idea that is not entertaining nor do I buy any of it as something audiences would care to see, regardless of the fact that they were, indeed, a real band who had split before production but reformed specifically for the film. When people tell me that they have the soundtrack to A Perfect Couple, I have to fight back the urge to snakily tell them that I don’t bother them with my personal troubles so I don’t know why they can’t return the favor.

Throughout the film, we witness a silent “perfect couple” (Fred Beir and Jette Seear) as they pop up in various scenes through the story as a visual counterpoint to the messiness that happens around them. Only at the big ending at the Hollywood Bowl do they fall apart as our imperfect couple of Alex and Sheila reunites for the final time. It’s a cute idea, I guess, but stuck in the midst of one of Robert Altman’s worst films, it’s an idea wasted on a film that doesn’t deserve it.

(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain

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