Brewster McCloud begins and
ends in a wobbly, unsure fashion, which isn't to say that it isn't
fascinating or entertaining. But the film's middle is funnier
and smoother, with multiple themes and plot strands intertwining and
overlapping in a manner that constantly skirts disaster. This
flirtation with storytelling chaos keeps things lively, even when the
jokes occasionally fall flat or a moment fails to ring true. Robert
Altman's fourth feature film (released in 1970, the same year as MASH) contains many of the director's hallmarks
- overlapping dialogue and understated humor, to name two - but
with a heavier thematic line and a more screwball filmmaking style.
Bud Cort plays the hero of the title,
a strangely single-minded young man who lives inside the Houston Astrodome
and dedicates his life to constructing a set of wings, with which he
plans to "fly away." Sally Kellerman, looking like she just won
the award for Hottest Lady of 1970, plays his guardian, Louise, a mysterious
woman who maintains an undisclosed stake in the success of Brewster's
project. Tempting his focus away from this mission is a young
woman who works as an Astrodome tour guide (Shelley Duvall). A
parallel storyline concerns a local investigation into a string of homicides
by strangulation, led by out-of-town hotshot cop Frank Shaft (Michael
Brewster McCloud was penned
by Doran William Cannon as a combination of sociological allegory and
parody of 1968's Bullitt, starring Steve McQueen. The parody
aspect of Brewster McCloud, while funny enough for those familiar
with the McQueen film, hasn't aged too well - probably because
Bullitt was so much more influential upon Hollywood filmmaking than
Altman's film. But the story of Brewster and his bizarre quest
remains potent, funny, and significant.
Despite everything, the film works
as a whole, with the cop story providing some solid, subtle laughs amid
a somewhat anarchic plot. Brewster's story - and his connection
to birds in general - explicitly suggests a yearning to escape contemporary
society, especially authority figures who seek to maintain a controllable
level of mediocrity among the masses. It's an idea that was
in full flower throughout the late '60s and early '70s, and in hindsight
it doesn't seem overly original or powerful. It's Cannon's
and Altman's unique, understated, witty approach to the theme that
- ahem - gives it wings; undeniably a product of the 1970s,
the film nonetheless avoids overt politicization or other topical references,
which help prolong its life and preserve the themes even today.
The cast is excellent. Cort's
appearance in the film predated his legendary role in Hal Ashby's
Harold and Maude by a year, but he has the same highly watchable,
enigmatic charisma here as in the later film. Although Brewster's
specific motivations remain cloudy, Altman and Cort signify the "meaning"
behind the character's project with a relatively light touch.
Kellerman is alluring and appealing, while masking her character's
true nature and intentions. Murphy is good as the Bullitt-like
Frank Shaft, effectively harnessing McQueen's stone-faced self-absorption
and turtleneck-clad poseur-dom. Supporting turns, including
colorful appearances by everyone from Stacy Keach to Margaret Hamilton,
help maintain the picture's spirited momentum.
Stylistically, Brewster McCloud
bears an occasionally uncomfortable stamp of its era, mainly in the
form of some badly aged music, arbitrary slow-motion (which may have
been used as a joke), and some crass fast zooms. But Altman's
interest in widescreen photography is also in evidence, and in a number
of scenes he efficiently fits several characters into the frame to create
his signature "observational" style. Altman's direction
here serves the themes of a smart script, and aided by the stable of
oddball performances, Brewster McCloud retains its heady, cultish
edge at age 40.
The DVD is being touted by the Warner Archive Collection as a "Remastered
Edition," which is may in fact be, but the truth is that I've seen
many such editions beside which this transfer pales. Although
the image retains film grain and shows good color balance, there are
also an awful lot of defects - dirt, scratches, and other signs of
damage. The transfer is good, especially since Brewster McCloud
has never been released on DVD before, but I expected something a notch
or two better from "remastered" source material.
The mono soundtrack is in good shape. Dialogue is clear, music
is mixed nicely into the track, and sound effects are well-balanced.
It's a solid track that displays an excellent mixing job.
The original Theatrical Trailer is the only extra feature
Brewster McCloud is a marginally-dated,
but thoroughly enjoyable film that truly can't be compared to any
other. Its eclectic cast and combination of satire, allegory,
and parody are without peer. Robert Altman's deft handling of
tone helps keep this movie in the highest tier of the cult film pantheon.
Casey Burchby lives in Northern California: Twitter, Tumblr.