After Ronald Regan scored a dominating win and a second term in office, there had to be some kind of numbness that was felt by those who knew Reagan was an intellectual lightweight but yet somehow, almost despite himself, remained vastly popular. What, they thought, can’t people see, or, more scarily, do they even care? It was probably the latter for Reagan hustled in a kind of hyper-capitalism that ran on credit and deregulation which forced everything to continue to be “bigger and better.” And while this excited those consumers who could afford to see the middle class take a squeeze, it also caused more and more people to fall through the cracks and stumble into the margins where they no longer became part of society but part of a conversation that had some kind of re-beautification scheme baked into it so those people could be further marginalized and forgotten.

Somehow and someway, Robert Altman decided to put all of this and other sundry sentiments of anti-Reaganism into a big screen adaptation of the summer adventures of a couple of teenage characters who had graced the pages of National Lampoon throughout the early eighties. The result was 1985’s O.C. and Stiggs, a film that sat on the shelves until 1987 and one that is generally considered Altman’s worst effort by people who, I suppose, have never heard of or seen Beyond Therapy or A Perfect Couple. While it’s never going to be confused with top-shelf Robert Altman, O.C. and Stiggs remains a delightfully sly film with more on its mind than most of its teen-sex brethren. And, honestly, who gives a flying fuck if Altman forgot to add the sex when he’s having such a gas using his ONE major studio film of the 80’s to gleefully torch the foundation of what every decent American should despise? Altman deserved a medal, not jeers and castigation, for this move.

The plot of O.C. and Stiggs is pretty episodic and random; it’s basically a recounting of the crazy summer that our two characters had as their senior year lurks on the horizon. For O.C. (Daniel Jenkins), it’s a bittersweet memory as he will soon be moving to Arkansas for his final year of high school as the grandfather he has been living with has had his retirement insurance cancelled and is going to have to stay in a nursing home. For Stiggs (Neill Barry), it was just another summer where he can torture the wealthy Schwab family and upend societal convention if only for the attention that he is not getting in his own dysfunctional and overcrowded home.

As much as Popeye was to some extent just McCabe & Mrs. Miller reconfigured for kids, O.C. and Stiggs is basically “I Was a Teenage Hawkeye and Trapper John” where all of the pranks, jokes, and misdeeds have been rerouted from military authority and are now at the expense of the Schwabs, a clan of nouveau riche straights whose patriarch (Paul Dooley) is the insurance king in a community where the words loud, bigoted, tacky, gaudy would be appropriate descriptors. Altman’s rendering of Scottsdale, Arizona, makes it look like the new American frontier; a community of inhabitants in a place not meant to be inhabited, replete with artificial wave pools and other stupid attractions. It’s a baking, sweltering enclave that is an absolute hell, 100% Barry Goldwater territory; the exact type of place where Hal Phillip Walker (Thomas Hal Phillips), Nashville’s third-party presidential candidate, is making a bid for the U.S. Senate ten years after the events of that film.

So it’s a teen sex comedy where the sex is substituted with a giant rod up the ass of the shallow crassness, racial cruelty, and the individualistic, selfish pursuits that had run amok in the back nine of the Reagan Era. And wherever Reaganism failed, O.C. and Stiggs exploits. The homeless, Vietnam vets, decorum, capitalism, and silly charities all get a full inspection as the characters of O.C. and Stiggs are the perpetual progressive irritants in a dead suburbia becoming even more zombiefied. Wherever society decides to stagnate to the detriment of some, the two are there to make sure everyone’s boats are lifted.

So does this really sound like a teen sex comedy at all? The film’s connection to National Lampoon is crucial given M*A*S*H’s contribution to what Roger Ebert used to call the “slob comedy” which was made famous with 1978’s National Lampoon’s Animal House. So this is Altman closing a chapter by bringing it full circle with a certain poignancy and sadness. Unlike other similar films of the day, both O.C. and Stiggs have deep grievances that have some emotional truth. O.C. is hurt by the Schwab Insurance Company which has cancelled his grandfather’s retirement insurance and Stiggs is damaged by a philandering father and a sense of being completely unseen in a busy cacophony of a family (very reminiscent of The Boy’s situation in That Cold Day in the Park). These are kids whose adventures are more stimulated by what their elders have wreaked than it is about chasing girls. “What you boys need is some pussy,” says Melvin Van Peebles’s Wino Bob, in a jive on Peebles’s Sweet Sweetback persona. He knows what it’s like to want to put your foot in the Man’s ass and here are two white kids who have some shared enemies and who want to do just that. But there is a wistfulness to Bob’s sentiment as it’s just too bad that change is left to the young who are the only ones with the energy to do anything when they should be asked little more than to go out and enjoy their lives.

With some nice references to Apocalypse Now, The Pink Panther, The Last Picture Show, and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,Altman hasn’t been this referential since Brewster McCloud, itself referenced in O.C. and Stiggs via the jokey vanity plates and a very pointed scene dealing with a lot of bird shit. Additionally the inclusion of King Sunny Adae and his African Beats sets the film apart as one of the commercial aims of films like this was to pack the film with as many hot new artists as possible if only to create a separate revenue stream for the concurrently released soundtrack album. Here, the music of King Sunny Adae acts as pure joy and a great equalizer, one of the few things that seems to bring joy to everyone who hears it. And special mention has to be given to both Jane Curtain, who nails her role as the perpetually soused matriarch of the Schwab family (every member of which being too oblivious to notice is also a nice touch), and the radiant Cynthia Nixon, object of O.C.’s desire.

Of course, not everything in the film works like gangbusters. Sometimes the film has a difficult time mixing Altman’s style with the kind of two handed teen comedy that the movie sort-of kind-of wants to be. Sometimes it’s at ill at ease with itself and there are moments where Altman makes big miscalculations as to what the audience will find amusing by throwing unnecessary and goofy sound effects onto the soundtrack. Additionally, the film also shows the tell tale signs of over-editing; like the shapeless story was given the slightest bit of a plot only in the editing room leaving even more of this film on the editing room floor.

But considering the states of both Altman’s career and the subgenre he was inverting with O.C. & Stiggs, there is far more to celebrate here than to dismiss and the film’s continued life as a punchline thanks to people who should know better is borderline irresponsible. For all of the things Altman called out as a threat to our society in Nashville have brought in a return on their investment ten years later thus beginning the slow, poisonous crawl to our sorry state today. This is no better realized than in the character of Pat Coletti (the always incredible Martin Mull), a lazy and affable millionaire whose geographical proximity to the Schwabs makes him their almost polar opposite. Rich, insulated, and bored, Coletti’s brand of capitalism is an open, creative, and almost lax approach to making money which proves to be more inclusive and has a more balanced entrepreneurial spirit. So if O.C. And Stiggs is the final word in the slob comedy and not at all a teen sex comedy, Coletti and all of the adult characters represent the bitter end of the first half of their lives. While they’re all victims of Reaganism, they’re all choosing their own specific misery as they sink into inert middle-age, a place where most people no longer know how to grow but only know how to expand. And the choices they make speak volumes about their characters.

While Paul Dooley’s racist, conspiracy theory, doomsday prepper character looks like a first step toward MAGA right in the red, white, and blue middle of Reagan’s America, a retrospective view of O.C. and Stiggs shows how shockingly on the nose Altman was about all of it and how, perhaps, some of the criticism was from people who just didn’t want to believe it. I suppose if you had your head in the sand, this film would look incredibly silly. But, gosh, all of those American flags and “Don’t Tread on Me” signs papering cookie-cutter stucco homes that magically popped up in the middle of the Arizona desert to get away from… something? I’d say that, despite the inherent silliness in a so-called teen sex comedy being “Exhibit A” to prove a larger point, MAGA was less a phenomenon that sprung forth in 2016 and that it was there all along.

“This is real!” O.C. screams at Dennis Hopper during the film’s climax as the former is handed a grenade to be used to get out of Schwab’s doomsday room.

“Everything gets to be sooner or later,” Hopper replies.

(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain


When you begin to consider the high-level talent that went into the formula that produced Robert Altman’s HealtH, it’s difficult to recall another movie in film history that was, and continues to be, treated as poorly. Coming directly after Altman’s twin failures of 1979, Quintet and A Perfect Couple, its production was relatively quick and on-the-fly; an attempt to get one in the can while things at 20th Century Fox were still being run by Alan Ladd, Jr., a staunch Altman proponent who once gave the maverick filmmaker a million and a half dollars to make 3 Women, a movie that came to Altman in a dream and had no real cohesive story.

Sure enough, things did change and Ladd left for form the well-intentioned but doomed Ladd Company. HealtH, which had an initial scheduled release date in late 1979, began to get slowly pushed back on the schedule. Early 1980 came and went and a series of test runs arranged by the new management proved to be less than promising. The master plan of having it released before the 1980 presidential election never materialized. It’s safe to assume that when Altman began shooting the lavishly budgeted, dual-studio event picture Popeye in 1980, he couldn’t dream that he would get it shot, edited, and in theaters before HealtH.

But Popeye was released in time for Christmas in 1980 and HealtH was eventually pushed off of the Fox release schedule entirely (its final replacement on the Fox release schedule being Oh, Heavenly Dog!, a movie starring Chevy Chase and Benji). It did manage to play a limited engagement at Film Forum in 1982 but, aside from its occasional, stealthy appearance on various television movie channels, HealtH has never seen a release on home video. Every once in a while, a widescreen rip from one of those movie channel broadcasts makes its way onto YouTube, but it’s difficult to know if it’s been edited for time or whether the somewhat squeezed visual presentation is a representation of the film’s true aspect ratio.

Given its obscurity, the perceived notion is that HealtH must be some kind of otherworldly dog of a film; a real hubristic bonanza crafted amidst a barrage of likeminded projects by Altman. But the truth of the matter is that HealtH is a surprisingly strong and wicked look at the ridiculousness of the American political system as filtered through the world of the then-bourgeoning consumer health industry. A fine addition to the busier, wide-canvas ensemble pieces Altman could engineer with remarkable skill and dexterity, HealtH performs double duty as a sly comedy and a prescient warning of the toxic injection of empty personality and media-driven messaging into our electoral process. And having rewatched it in 2021 to rejigger this piece (originally written in early 2016), HealtH comes off as an even stronger film today given the twisted road down which we’ve travelled as a country.

HealtH is, on the surface, about two days at a health convention in which two candidates are running for the title of “President of HealtH.” Present at this convention are product pitchmen, authors, political functionaries & fixers, glad-handing bureaucrats, dirty tricksters, aides, liaisons, and PR staff all centering around the two presidential hopefuls. In one corner, Esther Brill (Lauren Bacall), 83 year-old virgin whose ubiquitous campaign slogan “Feel Yourself,” is delivered with an astounding cluelessness as Brill believes that each orgasm shaves 28 days off of your life. Her staff is made up of PR guru Harry Wolff (James Garner), oversexed campaign manager, Dr. Ruth Ann Jackie (Ann Ryerson) Brill’s undersexed personal physician who secretly lusts after Wolff, and a gaggle of nurses who are constantly drinking behind Brill’s back. In the other corner is Isabella Garnell (Glenda Jackson) a pragmatic-yet-cold idealist whose speeches all seem swiped from Adlai Stevenson. Her entourage consists solely of Willow Wertz (Diane Stilwell), a sweet-natured aide whose ongoing sexual frustration is rooted in her inability to feel anything sexual for anything whatsoever. And between the two candidates are Gloria Burbank (Carol Burnett), a representative from the White House and Wolff’s ex-wife; Dr. Gil Gainey (Paul Dooley), an independent candidate for president and shill for something called “Vita-Sea;” Colonel Cody (Donald Moffat), a bellowing political string-puller; Bobby Hammer (Henry Gibson), a slimy, Roger Stone-adjacent political operative sent to disrupt the Garnell campaign; Sally Benbow (Alfre Woodard), the convention hotel’s PR director; and, finally, Dick Cavett, as himself, who is there to cover the event for his talk show. Oh, yeah, and the Steinettes, an a capella outfit that acts as a ridiculous (but appropriate) greek chorus to HealtH’s very odd portrait of 1979 America.

In the film, we’re told that HealtH (which stands for “Happiness, Energy and Longevity through Health”) is an organization more than three times the size of the NRA and whose members can be similarly motivated to vote one way or the other. So the film certainly exists in an America that could also produce the cockeyed presidential campaign of Nashville’s Hal Phillip Walker. But Walker didn’t much have a real-life counterpart in 1975. The populist politics of Nashville reflected a hopelessness that washed through the post-Watergate, pre-Carter country like a rotten fever. The politics of HealtH were much more immediate. While sending up the then-current political climate, the film seems to anticipate the cultural shift that occurred in the presidential election in 1980. Even if the other candidates in the film could be composites of many other political figures, Esther Brill is a certain representation of the perceived image of Ronald Reagan, a man who counted on a network of advisors and aides to keep him informed and aware and who was about to enter the presidential race with a boatload of sunny optimism and slogans aplenty.

While HealtH isn’t perfect due to its unfocused and rushed production and its occasional tendency to get lost in the sauce of its own mix of satire and reality (you never really feel like you should be investing in it as you really should), it’s Altman’s strongest film since 3 Women. The script, by Altman regular Frank Barhydt, actor Dooley, and Altman does an amazing job keeping the film equally steeped in reality (through the characters of Woodard and Garner), television (Cavett and, eventually, Dinah Shore), and fantasy (basically everything else). The performances, too, are all top-notch. Burnett, Bacall, and Jackson are all terrific but the film is absolutely stolen at every turn by Woodard whose polite facade hilariously begins to give way to disdain as the convention rolls along. Among the men, Garner turns in a reliably easy-going performance, Paul Dooley is as energetic as I’ve ever seen him, and Dick Cavett, remarkably comfortable in a sizable role, has a great deal of fun.

As history marches on, HealtH’s chances of being anything other than a completely forgotten and mostly unseen film become slimmer and slimmer. Fox’s catalog is now owned by Disney, Altman passed away in 2006, and, aside from his centennial that will occur in 2025, there simply seems to be few occasions that could plausibly act as a catalyst for its release. This is a genuine shame because while sometimes chuckling and sometimes wincing while watching it in the midst of our own current absurd political climate that certainly seems like it could play out in an Altman film, it’s almost guaranteed that HealtH could still find an audience today. Sadly, it will probably never have the chance.

(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain


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



After Popeye (1980), Robert Altman had effectively alienated himself from most of the Hollywood studios and took to adapting stage plays for the big screen through independent financing. In the early 1980s, National Lampoon magazine published stories about two troublemaking teenagers named Oliver Cromwell ‘O.C.’ Ogilvie and Mark Stiggs written by Tod Carroll and Ted Mann. When Altman made O.C. and Stiggs in 1984 (it wasn’t released until 1987), teen comedies were all the rage but he hated them and so, instead, he made it into a biting satire of these kinds of films. Not surprisingly, nobody liked it and the movie quickly disappeared. Even among Altman fans it has few supporters and was eventually quietly released on DVD.

O.C. (Daniel Jenkins) and Stiggs (Neill Barry) are suburban teens and avid practical jokers who live in Phoenix, Arizona. The main target of their gags is the Schwab family, a decadent, materialistic clan headed by Randall Schwab (Paul Dooley) who sells insurance. The mother (Jane Curtin) is an alcoholic, their son (Jon Cryer) is a gullible idiot while their daughter is about to get married.

In some respects, O.C. and Stiggs are like teenage versions of Hawkeye and Trapper John from M*A*S*H (1970). Both feature clever hipsters but the latter were also brilliant surgeons whereas the former are only good at one thing – staging elaborate practical jokes. In M*A*S*H, the two surgeons were fighting against authority and the absurdity of war while O.C. and Stiggs are fighting against materialism and mediocrity as represented by the Schwabs with their bad fashion sense and gaudy décor – the epitome of the “ugly American.”

The problem with O.C. and Stiggs is the central characters. They aren’t particularly interesting. Their obsession with pulling endless practical jokes on the Schwabs seems mean-spirited at times. Another problem lies in what O.C. and Stiggs are rebelling against, which isn’t as clearly defined as the war in M*A*S*H. The teen pranksters are rebelling against the mind-numbing banality of suburbia and the “Greed is good” era of Reaganomics. There is an attempt to provide some kind of motivation for why these kids do what they do. Stiggs’ dad is cheating on his wife while O.C.’s dad (grandfather?) is unemployed and possibly senile. No wonder they spend all their time together devising elaborate schemes. It is a form of escape from their mundane surroundings.

This movie sees Altman in an extremely playful mood with the same kind of fast and loose structure as California Split (1974), which also features two freewheeling pals careening from one crazy encounter to another. A crazed, babbling Dennis Hopper even pops up as a burnt out Vietnam vet. It’s as if his photographer character from Apocalypse Now (1979) had somehow made it out of Kurtz’s compound and came back to the United States.

There are some nice moments, like when O.C. dances with a beautiful girl (Cynthia Nixon) at the Schwab wedding that is a nod to classic Hollywood cinema by way of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. But it is not enough to keep this uneven film together.

Altman flips the ‘80s teen comedy on its head. He even refuses to populate the film’s soundtrack with trendy New Wave music, instead opting for the catchy African music of King Sunny Ade. No wonder people hated this movie when it came out. Clearly Altman did not grasp the original source material (or didn’t even bother to read it) and just did his own thing. The results are, at times, amusing and at some point you either surrender yourself to the goofiness of the whole enterprise or resist this maddeningly frustrating effort.