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— Zoe Saldana, Star Trek

MRQE Top Critic

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When Robert Altman died late last year, he left a legacy of nearly forty feature films spanning six decades. Any retrospective is likely to include Nashville, The Player, M*A*S*H, and Gosford Park. But deciding which of his lesser known films to show would be a much harder job.

A simple romantic comedy with slightly dated styles and music
A simple romantic comedy with slightly dated styles and music

Perhaps one of the least well known is A Perfect Couple, from 1979, which sees a DVD re-release this spring. (It doesn’t appear to be a remastered or restored print; the color and condition of the print are good, but the darker scenes are very grainy.)

If you don’t already know the film, watch the featurette on the DVD first. It includes recent interviews with the cast and crew, including Altman himself. They talk about the film, its inspiration, and the time in which it was made.

It seems that Altman wanted to make a romantic comedy that followed most of the usual rules of the genre, except one. He recalls thinking “I’d like to do a love story but where the leads aren’t two movie stars; they’re just ordinary schlumps.”

The other half of the film’s inspiration is the music. Altman had seen a band whom he thought he could use in a film. The band, eventually named “Keepin’ ‘em off the Streets,” was put together by Allan Nicholls and a group of out-of-work actors who knew how to play music. Since they were primarily actors and not musicians, they had no grand ambitions for their band. They just wanted to have fun making music, sans egos. Altman liked their energy, and you will too.

Around these two high-level ideas, Altman creates a story about two lonely people, looking for love from a video dating service. Sheila (Marta Heflin) is a singer in the band and Alex (Paul Dooley) helps his family run an antiques store. Both he and she put up with “weirdo” families dominated by an overbearing patriarch.

For Sheila, the band is her family. They all live and rehearse together in an industrial loft. For privacy, they hang sheets, use Chinese screens, or just do without. Their patriarch is Teddy, the lead singer, played by “Jesus Christ, Superstar” Ted Neely. Teddy is trying to keep it all together, and can’t afford to let anyone out of his sight. Missing rehearsal or, God forbid, catching a cold, can get you a hefty fine docked from your paycheck.

Alex’s big fat Greek family knows their place: under grandfather’s thumb. Don’t try to make dinner plans away from home, or Papa will tell you to sit, and you will be unable to disobey — even if you are forty years old and going on your first date in years.

Altman weaves a nice counterpoint through the movie. We open on a shot of the perfect couple picnicking at the Hollywood Bowl. It’s not until Altman pushes the camera past this couple, behind them and to the right, that we realize we’re supposed to be watching a different couple, one that is having a hard time trying to feign interest in their first date. Throughout the movie, Altman shows us a glimpse of this other, more perfect couple — at a restaurant, at a party, at the doctor’s office. We catch them being perfect, kissing gently, he being gracious, she being graceful, the perfect counterpoint to our scrawny, pudgy, petty, and mistrusting duo.

Altman succeeds at his goal of making a romantic comedy with non-gorgeous leads, and making a movie that uses the band well. A Perfect Couple is not a musical, but the band gets to perform maybe a dozen musical numbers for the camera. The musical number is always justified by the plot — in other words, the action doesn’t stop so someone can sing about their feelings. But the musical numbers are well-timed to help shape the arc of the story and express what’s going on between the characters.

A Perfect Couple is a solid, respectable movie. It is well made, unassuming, and maybe forgettable for the casual movie watcher. It’s a simple romantic comedy with slightly dated styles and music. It is, however, essential viewing for those who want to be thoroughly familiar with Altman’s canon.

Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies