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


Robert Altman understands that weddings are semi-goofy affairs on which, each year, a whole lot of money is dropped on lavish, nerve-wracking, and anxiety-inducing ceremonies and even more unthinkably gaudy receptions, all in the service of unions that have less than a 50% chance of succeeding. He’s also keen on the notion that all weddings are secret disasters waiting to happen as the joining of two families is generally a nightmare recipe. So it’s curious that A Wedding, Altman’s first contemporary and reality-bound work since Nashville, feels like more like a rough idea than it does an actual movie. To be sure, it’s a mostly wonderful and quotable film, but it’s also frustratingly overstuffed, laboriously too busy (even for an Altman joint), and, perhaps most consequentially, permeated with an ugly and rank contempt for almost all of its characters.

A Wedding is the story of the wedding and subsequent daylong reception of Muffin Brenner (Amy Stryker) and Dino Corelli (Desi Arnez, Jr.). Opening as a grand and reverent enterprise, the film slowly peels layer upon layer from almost every character in its purview to the point where, at the end, the entire party on both sides of the aisle has been exposed as unpleasant, sick, and/or corrupted in almost embarrassing measures.

On the groom’s side is an air of a nouveau riche aristocracy and is one that is likewise laced with ennui-induced drug addiction. On the bride’s side, there is more established wealth that masks a lower-class of people where bored complacency leads to wanton hedonism and where familial relations are far too close for comfort. Between them is an assortment of friends, siblings, in-laws, ex-boyfriends, ex-girlfriends, estate staff, and event contractors, all of whom share secrets, desires, loves, laughs, drinks, weed, politics, and indignities throughout the day and into the evening.

I suppose that in his defense, Altman thought it was all ok if he stuck it to everyone on the screen with equal force and measure and therefore couldn’t be branded as an elitist if he did so. But it’s almost as if the cynical summations of America that he presented in both Nashville and Buffalo Bill and the Indians had disgusted Altman to the point where the poison couldn’t help but flow into his creative juices which, sometimes, does minor damage to the film. I mean, it’s one thing to introduce a creepy, almost incestuous relationship between two of the family members in the pursuit of some dark humor but, from a sexual standpoint, the bride’s side of the family is presented as such a gaggle of grossly dysfunctional and regressive hayseeds that the film sometimes veers dangerously close to being mean-spirited. Like the world on display in Buffalo Bill and the Indians, the groom’s side of the family is a closed, perverted environment and one that is so decadently incorrect that “Chairman of the Board” William Williamson (Altman regular Bert Remsen filing his last performance for the director) is the only guest to show amid the “few more than a hundred” regrets.

Sometimes, the need to cover everything crowds out Altman’s better sense and further dulls the piece. While the former supplies at least three of the film’s hilarious moments, both Viveca Lidfords’s Ingrid Hellstrom and Maureen Steidler’s Libby Clinton could have been completely excised from the film without affecting its structure in the least. Likewise, less time could have been spent on extraneous characters and situations such as the sometimes farcical security detail (which includes co-screenwriters Patricia Resnick and John Considine) and the film crew (which includes another co-writer, Allan Nicholls). While well-intentioned, neither of these conceits feel very organic and they likewise suck up a lot of oxygen that could have been of better use by focusing on the specific relationships between the myriad characters or on Geraldine Chaplin’s delightfully uptight wedding planner, smartly utilized as the film’s master of ceremonies/center of the hurricane.

As is to be expected, the entire cast is incredible. While her broadly pitched performance sometimes tilts in the direction of the Eunice character she created for her variety show, Carol Burnett is wonderfully hilarious as Tulip Brenner, mother of the bride. Almost better is Nina Van Pallandt as Regina Corelli, mother of the groom. Nursing a secret yet crippling addiction to heroin, Pallandt is by turns nervous and jittery before her performance relaxes into an enunciation minefield where all of her hard r’s are sanded down and she glides along on a soft, narcotic cloud. Vittorio Gassman, playing beleaguered father of the groom Luigi Corelli, turns in a softly hilarious and ultimately touching performance as he slowly reveals himself to be perhaps the most decent person in the whole bunch. But, if anything, the film’s greatest casting coup was to pair Paul Dooley and Dennis Christopher as father and son. Portraying, respectively, father and brother of the bride, Snooks and Hughie Brenner, both find the exact temperature in every scene they’re in and create a truly believable dynamic which no doubt led Peter Yates to cast them as father and son in the following year’s Breaking Away in which both gave career-best performances.

And on a technical level, A Wedding is a marvel. As much as any multi-tracked ensemble film from Altman, it demands to be seen twice as half of the film’s best jokes are found in the grout and away from the camera, in snippets of random dialogue that rise above the maelstrom of its staggering cast of characters (there are about twice as many people in this than in Nashville). Additionally, most of the scenes contain an energetic and bustling choreography of actors moving in and out of the staid and static frame that sit nicely alongside Altman’s more familiar, “roaming-eye” camera flourishes.

By now, it probably sounds as if A Wedding is something of an unlikeable failure which is most definitely not the case. While it’s far from a masterpiece, it contains a great many worthwhile insights that live underneath its thorny and acrid surface and, despite the film’s tone, the natural beauty of Altman’s style can’t help but elevate the picture to something more than just a moving portrait of unappealing wax dummies. Even though the air is mostly foul, there’s a vivaciousness in this movie and perhaps the point of the film is that it’s as as equally hilarious and nauseating as real life.

In retrospect, though, Altman’s greatest idea involves the death of Nettie Sloan (Lillian Gish). It’s probably no accident that Gish, the doe-eyed “First Lady of American Cinema,” is cast as the matriarch of a family which is helplessly dishonorable. Dying in the film’s early moments (setting up one of the film’s best gags that predates Ted Kotcheff’s Weekend at Bernie’s by a full decade), she seems utterly relieved to no longer have to lord over a family where the relationship between her daughter Clarice (Virginia Vestoff) and Randolph (Cedric Scott), the African-American house butler, is explicitly dictated to remain in the closet (as is the family’s biggest secret which reveals itself in the film’s closing moments). An antiquated sense of race and class dissolving as the natural winds of change blow about her, Altman symbolically uses Gish’s demise to trumpet the new cinema which had, by 1978, choked out the old system.

“When it’s over, it gets real sad,” says Rosie Bean (Lesley Rogers) to Geraldine Chaplin’s Rita Billingsley about the exhausting comedown that occurs after the ceremonial brouhaha surrounding a wedding. On one hand, it’s an indictment of the kind of dichotomy that naturally exists between a wedding and a marriage. On another hand, it’s something of an existential conundrum put to people like Billingsley who make a living feeding the beast and widening that delta. But another possibility is that it could also be Altman speaking to himself; reckoning that his Hollywood stroke had become less and less significant and perhaps feeling his best days were shrinking into the horizon behind him. But like the detestable and doomed Wilson Briggs (Gavan O’Herlihy) and Tracy Farrell (Pam Dawber), the bride and groom’s respective exes who each show up to the wedding reception as bad-faith discomfort agents, Altman was too busy being a condescending wisenheimer to see the jackknifed tanker sitting in the middle of the highway toward which he was barreling at top speed.

(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain