DIRECTED BY: Robert Altman
PLOT: An oddball genius constructs a one man flying device in the basement of the Houston Astrodome, assisted by a sexy but murderous guardian angel.
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Robert Altman’s showman’s understanding and appreciation of the circus influenced the presentation of this surreal satire with its unconventional plot, eccentric characters, and eye-catching production design. Watching this colorful odyssey is like exploring a side road on the cinematic highway to Oz.
COMMENTS: Five out of five stars all the way for this gorgeous, pensive work of art. In this strange black comedy, Brewster McCloud (Cort -“Harold” from Harold and Maude) is a likable misfit who lives in the fallout shelter of the old Houston Astrodome. He endeavors to build a mechanical flying suit which will enable his escape from an incomprehensible world to some unknown imaginative utopia. An eccentric angel adeptly played by the quirky Sally Kellerman strangles anyone who opposes Brewster.
Brewster McCloud has a humorously heavy ornithological thesis with a narrative lecture provided by an off kilter science professor. The instructor’s recitation of facts about the social and mating habits of birds provides a funny comparative commentary on human nature. Avian themes glue the plot points together and furnish continuity between a sequence of strange events as Brewster struggles to achieve his goal.
There are three subplots: a coming of age story centered around McCloud, a social commentary stemming from the exposition of similarities and differences between humans and birds, and a murder investigation. While the police attempt to determine why the strangulation victims are found plastered with bird droppings, Brewster tries to beat the clock and perfect his flying machine before the authorities close in. He must stay focused in spite of two seductive girlfriends. One is a sexually repressed, self pleasuring health food nut. The other is a daffy wannabe race car driver who speeds about in a hot-rod that she purloined from a pervert. Throughout, Brewster encounters a broad range of corrupt, maniacal locals and shake down artists whom he evades in foot pursuits and car chases.
Brewster McCloud is one of Robert Altman’s most imaginatively entertaining and colorful films. In this delightfully oddball production, Altman makes strategic, thoughtful use of magic realism to deliver a sardonically dark satire. In one scene, a detective crashes his muscle car into a pond behind a family posing for a photograph in a public park. His legs crushed, the driver shoots himself in the head, but the subjects posing for the photo never break their stiffly arranged stance for the camera to turn around and look. Such moments are reminiscent of the morbid humor of the segment in Catch-22 in which an airman standing on a dock is cut in half by the prop of a fighter plane. Appallingly, the legs and waist of the hapless subject continue to stand in place for a second before flopping over into the water.
Altman’s reverence for the circus, the oldest form of showmanship and theater features prominently in the production design. Altman casts character actors like Stacy Keach, Shelly Duvall and Margaret Hamilton. Sight gags reference their trademark films. Hamilton, for instance, appears in trademark red slippers from The Wizard of Oz.
The dialogue is telling and the segments are funny. In one memorable sequence, Stacy Keach plays an eccentric pistol-packing millionaire. Made up as Shylock from The Merchant of Venice, he takes to the busy metro freeways in a souped-up wheelchair with disastrous results.
Producer Lou Adler brought John Phillips (The Mamas and the Papas) into the project to write supplemental music for the score. Phillip’s contribution is breathtakingly beautiful and represents some of his finest work. Altman thoughtfully composed each shot, and every frame looks like an artistic photograph. The film’s carefully planned, striking color and design continuity result in a stunning optical footprint. With it’s 2.35:1 aspect ratio it provides a visual experience that is nothing short of spectacular. (Shot in 70mm.)
Brewster McCloud is a picturesque highlight of 1970’s cars, culture, and Houston locations, many of which, like the wonder with which people once viewed the Astrodome, are now a distant memory. Viewing the film today may be a nostalgic experience for those fans who wish to take one last glimpse at the garishness and good times of that carefree decade of loud fashions, laughable pop cultural values, and larger than life characters and settings. As such Brewster McCloud is a worthwhile, overlooked, if not difficult to obtain treat for the senses. (The movie is unforgivably out of print on DVD).
Note: This film was very poorly marketed. The dreadfully misguided trailers are not representative, and have been omitted from this recommendation.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Delightfully bizarre… an unusually well-made train wreck, probably smarter than it initially appears but never anywhere close to heavy enough to diminish it as entertainment.”–Jay Seaver, Efilmcritic.com (DVD)