Sometimes even when a movie isn't very good, you can't help but like it anyway.
Such is the case with A Perfect Couple, Robert Altman's 1979 romantic comedy. It's contrived and cliché, and it's at least twenty minutes too long, but it's also weirdly charming.
Paul Dooley (the dad from Sixteen Candles) stars as Alex, the eldest son in a large Greek family. He works for his father (Titos Vandis) at their antiques store, and he and his brother and sisters and their spouses all live under one roof, snugly beneath the thumb of the controlling patriarch. Daddy doesn't like the kids to fly too far from the nest. The one to stray the farthest is Eleousa (Belita Moreno), who plays cello in the Los Angeles Philharmonic. She also has a fatal heart condition. This is the stuff of great tragedy.
Except it's not a tragedy, it's a light '70s comedy. Alex is trying to get his love life going, and he's started using a dating service. There, he has met Sheila (Marta Heflin). Their first date doesn't go so well, and their second doesn't happen at all. Sheila has an extended family of her own. She's a singer in a large performance group called Keepin' 'Em Off the Streets. The leader of the band, Teddy (Ted Neeley), controls his players with as much ruthlessness as Alex's papa. Thus, even after all the misfires, when the two would-be lovers do finally connect, they both have reasons to keep their relationship a secret. It's a "will they or won't they?" style of movie. Will they ever stand up for themselves? Won't they ever get together?
Altman purposely kept A Perfect Couple a little ragged. He wanted his lead actors to be more like normal people than big movie stars, and he tries to maintain that natural feel in every aspect of the movie. The acting style is loose, and the set isn't nearly as tailored as one would expect from a fluffy Hollywood picture. It kind of half works. Sometimes I blanched at how slapdash the story feels, and sometimes that is A Perfect Couple's main allure. The structure has a freeform air about it, meaning Altman can pull a couple of unpredictable turns out of predictable territory. He uses Keepin' 'Em Off the Streets as a modern equivalent of a Greek chorus, their stage performance framing and commenting on the scenes. Just like everything else in this flick, the band works in Altman's favor just as much as it works against him. While the use of the songs gives the movie an unconventional flavor, it can also be tedious because the music is absolutely terrible. It's like watered down R&B via Jim Steinman--large dramatic numbers with a hint of soul, but pure whitebread from one end slice to the last.
Even so, as I was reacting against all the frayed edges, Altman somehow got me onboard. It's almost like the director and I were in our own romantic comedy, with me cast as the reluctant lover who keeps swearing the grouchy maverick was getting his last chance with me, only to find that my denials had turned into affirmations, my rejections into affection. Paul Dooley is a likable cat, so I wasn't going to root for him to go to bed alone, and despite his hangdog manner, he really did give it a good romantic try. The sudden rise of the band and the big final number were totally ludicrous, sure, but screw it. Sometimes the happy ending is the only ending that fits.
Fox has merely done an adequate job in putting A Perfect Couple on DVD. The anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) looks muted. It's particularly noticeable in the night scenes, when a haze settles over the image and the blacks are too shallow. It was shot in 1979, so A Perfect Couple probably wasn't very vibrant to begin with (lots of beige, lots of gray), but I think this disc could have used a little more fine-tuning.
The stereo mix is also fairly average, though without any noticeable issues. The music sounds decent, and the dialogue is easy to hear, so it works. There is also a Spanish dub mixed as a mono track, as well as English and Spanish subtitles.
Perspective on Altman's Perfect Couple is a short documentary (16:40) looking back on the film, and it includes an interview with the late director alongside musical director Tony Berg, screenwriter Allan Nicholls, lead actors Dooley and Heflin, and several others. They explain about the interesting genesis of the project and how Keepin' 'Em Off the Streets came to be, and talk about the on-set atmosphere and the dynamic betweent the performers. I particularly appreciated hearing Atlman talk about his theories on story and his intent with A Perfect Couple. He's a filmmaker that will definitely be missed.
Also included is the original theatrical trailer for A Perfect Couple, along with trailers for three more Altman films: Quintet, A Wedding, and M*A*S*H.
Robert Altman may have gotten an honorary Oscar for his career in 2006, but it was on the strength of other films. A Perfect Couple was never one of his pictures that was going to be singled out for any awards or special honors. Even so, you should Rent It, because the movie's ragamuffin romance is endearing precisely because it's so dorky. It's a tale of a mismatched couple who refuses to accept that they shouldn't be together, and the various states of denial that get them past the people and obstacles that stand in their way. Made almost like a modern musical, complete with a rock 'n' roll chorus, A Perfect Couple is sloppy and overlong, but you'll probably find you liked it in spite of yourself.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the superhero series It Girl and the Atomics and the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.