After the success of 1970’s M*A*S*H, Hollywood essentially gave Robert Altman the green light to pursue any project his heart desired, no matter how strange or seemingly non-commercial. In a trademark fit of perverse iconoclasm, Altman scooped up one of the hottest scripts in the business—a black comedy about a misanthropic, womanizing New York murderer obsessed with flight, from Skidoo screenwriter Doran William Cannon—then changed the setting and discarded everything aside from its basic premise. Cannon was so enraged, he wrote an angry editorial in The New York Times expressing his displeasure with the changes to a screenplay Altman publicly derided as “shit.” Altman was well on his way to developing a reputation as an actor’s best friend and many screenwriters’ and executives’ worst nightmare.
In a role Cannon wanted Austin Pendleton to play, Harold And Maude’s baby-faced Bud Cort stars as an eccentric, reclusive young man who lives in the bowels of the Houston Astrodome and dedicates his life to building and perfecting a homemade one-person flying machine. Sally Kellerman co-stars as a mysterious figure that just might be Cort’s guardian angel and the seraphic creature behind a string of murders of creepy conservative Texans whose deaths go rightfully unmourned by the people they’ve callously exploited.
As befits an oddball fantasy-comedy about a man monomaniacally obsessed with transcending this sick, sad material world for the sensual ecstasy of flight, Brewster McCloud is pulled throughout in antithetical directions. In the earthly realm, it’s a sledgehammer-subtle social satire filled with cartoonish Keystone Kops haplessly pursuing their elusive prey, and crudely drawn authority figures behaving like petulant children. On a more ethereal level, it’s an intermittently lyrical, strangely poignant fantasy powered by the beatific, magnetic presence of Cort and Shelley Duvall in an electric debut, and “Papa” John Phillips’ lovely songs. Brewster McCloud is a thematic and narrative mess: disjointed, badly paced, tonally all over the place, and weighed down by an endless car chase and a running gag involving shit that Altman later pointlessly recycled for Ready To Wear. Yet it’s also a strangely compelling, utterly singular (even in Altman’s oeuvre) film rife with indelible moments. Even at the beginning of his film career, Altman was boldly reaching for the sky and sometimes falling straight on his ass.
Key features: None.