With Anouk Aimée, Marcello Mastroianni, Sophia Loren, Kim Basinger, Stephen Rea, Lauren Bacall, Julia Roberts, Tim Robbins, Lili Taylor, Sally Kellerman, Tracey Ullman, Linda Hunt, Rupert Everett, Forest Whitaker, Richard E. Grant, Danny Aiello, Teri Garr, Lyle Lovett, Jean Rochefort, Michel Blanc, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Ute Lemper, Anne Canovas, and François Cluzet.
The cold war was still on, which may explain why this movie made in 1994 features a mysterious scene in Moscow where Marcello Mastraoianni buys not one but two hideous ties, and sends one to a fashion consultant in Paris where they eventually meet and recognize each other by their ties, and during a conversation in the hired car, the fashion consultant dies.
Robert Altman is good at many things, including assembling a huge talented cast, creating multiple levels of dialogue and sound that contribute to a feeling of busyness and real life as it is lived, but telling a story is not one of them. The thread that connects Marcello to Sophia Loren, who is soon seen wearing a big red celebratory hat right after her husband has died, is sort of herky jerky; the dots do not connect, even when Marcello must deliver a long soliloquy which explains the back story of their relationship.
What story there is centers on the three editors of fashion magazines, played by Linda Hunt, Sally Kellerman, and Tracy Ullman. They all want to poach the star photographer (Stephen Rea) who is as rotten a cad as seen on screen since Boris and Natasha were hoodwinked by Mr. Big. Besides his weakness for flimsy plots, Altman seems to enjoy humiliating Sally Kellerman by having her show her body when clearly she wished she hadn’t. What is surprising is how she agrees to this claptrap since its jokiness had grown stale in M*A*S*H twenty years before. Kim Basinger gamely performs her journalist role with a Southern accent.
But I confess that I enjoyed some of the scenes. Anouk Aimee and Jean Rochefort are genuinely acting compared to the rest of the cast who seem to be mugging. The subplot with Tim Robbins and Julia Roberts getting stuck in a room together because neither of them will yield has a certain charm until they get dressed and the movie looks impossibly dated. Oh and the only way Julia relaxes is when she drinks which she does unconvincingly. Richard E. Grant looks like something out of a Renaissance painting with his tiny curl over his forehead.
The fashion shows have that ridiculous over the top quality that fashion shows do, as if what we wore could ever make a difference in the world. And then you realize that it does, it really does matter. And I wondered how much Altman got paid for all of the product placements…and if he thought he really was making a dazzling satirical statement in the closing scene when the models shed their clothes, and parade on the runway naked.
The movie was playing at the Walter Reade Theater who was celebrating Marcello Mastroianni. He made many movies better than this, but his charm and charisma come through and cannot be blamed for the smarmy tone of the director.