On DVD: Brewster McCloud

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 Murphy). 

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. 

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