Judge Mike Rubino is scraping the bird puns off his car.
"I forgot the opening line."
Altman really laid an egg with this one!
Alright. I wanted to start this review off with a good (fowl?) bird pun. That was the best I could come up with, but here are some others: Brewster McCloud is for the birds! This movie needed a couple more weeks in the nest! Altman is unflappable in his flighty mad-cappery!
Glad that's out of my system.
Facts of the Case
The film's titular hero, played by Bud Court (The Life Aquatic), is a reticent orphan-child who lives in the fallout shelter of the Houston Astrodome. Protected at all times by his wingless guardian angel Louise (Sally Kellerman, M*A*S*H), McCloud lives his secretive life in pursuit of one thing: flight. He wants to be free of this world, to soar above it like the birds. To do so, he has to build some wings.
Things aren't that simple for Brewster, and his destiny is constantly being challenged by distracters and deviants. Any time someone threatens Brewster, be it a crippled millionaire (Stacy Keach, Mike Hammer, Private Eye) or a racist Star-Spangled Banner singer (Margaret Hamilton, The Wizard of Oz), Brewster's guardian steps in and kills them with bird poop. This string of messy murders leads to the involvement of Steve McQueen-wannabe Lt. Frank Shaft (Michael Murphy, Manhattan), a hotshot detective flown in from San Francisco to catch the killer.
The late-60s saw their share of surreal, anarchic comedies. You know the type: lots of goofy chase scenes, an ensemble casts of hippies, bumbling and incompetent authority figures, etc. Robert Altman's take on the genre arrives years after What's New Pussycat? and King of Hearts, but is no less dated and not nearly as entertaining.
For Altman's follow-up to M*A*S*H, he decided to get a little zany and a little inaccessible, pumping out an Icarus-style allegory about a boy who tries to fly from society's oppressive cage. Its high-minded themes about non-conformity, the illusion of personal freedom, and the oppression of social constructs are not only piled on thick, but they aren't dealt with in any sort of sympathetic or appealing nature. Instead, we're treated to an aloof protagonist who may or may not be clinically insane—or at least a little weird. His story is wrapped in pretentious, condescending comedy and narration from a lecturer (Rene Auberjonois, Boston Legal) who slowly turns into a bird.
Brewster McCloud's brand of comedy doesn't really stand the test of time, which wouldn't be an issue if the story and themes were strong enough to carry the film. The idea of a boy building mechanical bird wings has potential, but Altman presents it as more of a subplot, taking a backseat to McCloud's personal (and sexual) development. The problem being that McCloud isn't a likable character. He spends his time working out, stealing, and flippantly marching about Houston killing people with little remorse (OK, his guardian angel is killing them by extension). I wasn't rooting for this kid, which made the film's climax all the more anti-climactic.
Strangely, there's another side to this film that is very enjoyable: Detective Frank Shaft. From the moment he shows up with his assortment of turtlenecks and holsters, this self-absorbed maverick steals every scene. The parody of Steve McQueen's Bullitt is palpable and hysterical as Shaft butts heads with local authorities, dodges a starstruck mayor, and eventually collides with the supposed serial killer. There are some funny lines and moments throughout the film, but this side story was functioning on a whole different level.
Altman's direction is characteristically meandering and naturalistic, but the picture tightens up when it needs to; specifically, the film's extended car chase is hilariously overblown in its lameness. Brewster McCloud is also filled with a more than adequate cast: newcomer Shelley Duvall plays McCloud's adorable love interest, Suzanne; Stacy Keach plays a racist, wheelchair-bound retirement home tycoon; and Sally Kellerman is endearing as the mysterious Louise. I can't say the same for Bud Cort, however, who plays his role with a Buster Keaton-esque stone face.
For Altman fans, Brewster McCloud has been a long time coming. The film was never been released on DVD, and even now is only available through the Warner Bros. Archives. This means that you'll be getting a made-to-order DVD in the mail, devoid of any special features short of a trailer. That said, the transfer on this disc is surprisingly decent. While there's still some dirt and scratches, the digital remastering presents a bright, colorful 1970 picture. The Dolby Digital mono isn't anything special, however, and you'll want to crank up the sound just to hear all of Altman's crowded dialogue.
Robert Altman has always been a stylistically divisive filmmaker, and Brewster McCloud may be his strangest and most unique work. It's a haphazardly pretentious and dated comedy that never gets off the ground story-wise. While there are some shining moments, including Detective Shaft, the piece doesn't really work as a whole.
Altman's fans have been waiting quite some time for this release, and hopefully it's as good as they remember. Everyone else should just stick to M*A*S*H.
Guilty of messing up the paint on my car.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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