READY TO WEAR (Pret-A-Porter)

Directed by Robert Altman

With a Brilliant All-Star Cast

U.S.A., 1994

The first word that appears on-screen in Pret-A-Porter is 'poison.' The word is part of a perfume ad seen through a shop window where the great Italian actor Marcello Mastroianni is found shopping for a Christian Dior tie in the film's opening scene. The shop, we find, is located just around the corner from Red Square -- a visual gag that represents the wackiness Pret-A-Porter aspires to but rarely achieves. This film is too labored (and a bit too misanthropic) to work as screwball comedy. But if Altman's film isn't a funny valentine to LaCroix, Lagerfeld, and cohorts, it's not exactly a poison pen letter, either. What's wrong with this picture?

The movie tells a number of stories that intertwine haphazardly during the high-powered slew of Paris fashion shows that unveil the spring collections. The elaborate web is held together by the flimsy conceit of a fashion potentate's sudden and untimely death in heavy traffic. None of that, of course, matters. And admittedly, it all sounded like a great idea at one time -- Altman and his crew run rampant through the Paris fashion shows, setting up an all-star lampooning of the whole industry. But this time, recovering from the critical success of The Player and Short Cuts, Altman comes up distressingly empty-handed.

One wonders why so many great actors seem like they'd rather be anyplace else. Tim Robbins looks truly miserable in his role as an American sportswriter saddled with both Julia Roberts and the fashion week murder story. True, this could make anyone a bit morose, but Robbins (so fine in The Player) doesn't even look like he's trying, and Roberts is useless as his reluctant companion. While he opens a bottle of wine, she mugs for the camera -- oh boy, liquor! In all honesty, all of Robbins' and Roberts' scenes could have been left on the cutting-room floor, and the film's only loss would have been star power (which won't help it anyway). Stephen Rea makes a game run as the world's hottest fashion photographer, but he's hidden behind dark glasses and a hipper-than-thou veneer that doesn't allow him to have much fun with the part. Only Forest Whittaker taps the surreal spirit of the fashion circus, with his smiling, superconfident portrayal of designer Cy Bianco. Even Richard Grant seems to take his role a bit too seriously.

A little better are Linda Hunt, Sally Kellerman, and Tracey Ullman, as the influential magazine editors who travel from show to show together but vie for Rea's professional attention. Teri Garr and Danny Aiello are adequate but uninspired in minor roles, and the regal Sophia Loren is allowed to bask in the film's only moment of honest sentiment, in a showpiece bedroom scene with Mastroianni. And Kim Basinger, cast as a vacuous yet omnipresent TV reporter, has never been more irritating than she is here -- which is, admittedly, the point. But when so many great performers turn in such nonchalant performances, it's logical to assume that somewhere, a director's not directing. Whatever Altman was doing, his heart wasn't in it.

Miramax made an eleventh-hour decision earlier this month to officially change the name of this film to Ready to Wear, apparently fearful that the great unwashed would be frightened away from the multiplex by a four-syllable French term they can't pronounce. It was an ill-advised decision, not just because Ready to Wear is a terrible name for a film, but because the change smacks of their lack of confidence in the finished product. In another dubious marketing coup, Miramax has seen fit to give away the ending of the film -- a parade of models wearing the Emperor's New Clothes -- in its print ad campaign.

That's just one of the metaphors Altman offers up here. Another is the dog crap that his characters keep stepping in. Yet another is the changing wardrobe of Mastroianni, who outfits himself by sneaking into closets and stealing luggage, who we see at the end of the film decked out in leather finery and sleeping on a park bench. It's a shame to completely pan this movie, because film buffs will find a lot to enjoy, and some of what's going on is actually quite a bit of fun. But there's a problem at the core of this one. Altman wants to say that the world of fashion is illusory, that it's all a load of what Basinger finally calls "bullshit." But Pret-A-Porter itself is so overblown, so full of itself and yet so exquisitely empty, that we're left wondering whether, in his haste to expose the Emperor's New Clothes, the artist has stopped near a mirror to check his own dangerously ephemeral finery.

DEEP FOCUS (formerly The Flicker Archive)
Reviews by Bryant Frazer