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.
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.