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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

'Kansas City' Hunts For the Kick of Jazz

As the man said, "It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing."

Robert Altman's latest movie, "Kansas City," the 1996 release now playing at the Americom House of Cinema, is an ambitious attempt to put a human face to the historical forces at play in that gloriously thorny field of the Lord, the United States of America. He wants to show how the currents of political power are fed (and diverted) by crime, violence, hypocrisy and racism -- and how these elements are not just themes for abstract analysis but also the stuff of everyday life.

Whether he succeeds in these intentions is entirely up to the viewer, who will either fall in with the odd rhythm Altman establishes or else find the director has completely lost the tune. Yet even in the latter case, any viewer will still find plenty to admire in the film, not least its fine "period" flavor.

Set in a 1930s urban world of big fedoras, big sedans and snazzy suits, the film is centered on a real event -- a showdown between legendary saxmen Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young in a "Negro" jazz club in Kansas City. The music and the club are evocatively rendered by Altman, and recreating this heady atmosphere was obviously the driving force behind the movie as a whole. Altman also does a fine job of setting the music -- one of America's greatest cultural and spiritual achievements -- firmly in the wider context of the tarnished world that gave birth to it.

The showdown takes place as the whole city tenses for a violence-ridden, mob-corrupted local election. While the music blows and the liquor flows down at the Hey-Hey Club, a small-time white hood crosses a big-time black gangster. The hood's wife makes a desperate attempt to rescue him, a gamble that eventually draws in an advisor to President Roosevelt, the governor of Missouri -- and their connections in the local underworld. There are also narrative riffs on class and caste, on personal identity and public image, and the large part popular culture plays in both; plus lots of jokes, some good performances and, always, the music.

It would be hard to go wrong with such material -- but you couldn't really say Altman makes the most of it. There is a curious lack of energy to the film, a sketchy quality that goes beyond the director's famously diffuse, offhand style.

Where once he filled his movies with intricate, subtle detail that would resonate and reveal new insights long after the initial viewing, here he seems content merely to gesture at his meanings, not bring them to vivid life.

Altman is also ill-served in his choice of leading lady: Jennifer Jason Leigh turns in one of the most irritating, mannered performances you will see in many a moon. But he gets great work from Harry Belafonte as the gangster chieftain Seldom Seen, and from Miranda Richardson as a laudanum-addled society wife.