Thoughts on A Perfect Couple (Robert Altman, US, 1979)

posted: 14 July, 2008

Last night I attempted to watch William Klein’s A Model Couple but I accidentally put on A Perfect Couple, directed by Robert Altman in 1979. OK, I love Altman and here’s one that I haven’t watched yet, still from his 70’s period but the tail-end, that post-Nashville, starting-to-lose it phase that produced films like A Wedding and Quintet, culminating in (the brilliant) Popeye and pretty much ending his career for a decade. Right. Sounds good, so I stick with it.

I actually have a soft spot for the so-called “bad” Altmans. OC and Stiggs is great; I even enjoyed Beyond Therapy, of which the critical consensus is that it’s Altman’s utter nadir. Actually I would rather watch either of those films again than sit through Nashville a second time, even though Nashville is completely brilliant and his masterpiece etc etc - because they don’t have 2 hours of bad country music in them. Plus there’s my whole love of non-B-movie trainwreck films, and love of all American films from the 1970s. A Perfect Couple sounded promising anyway - it’s from the 70’s and it stars Paul Dooley - how bad could it be?

It’s actually not horrible, just bad; but it starts with a classically brilliant Altman soundmix where Paul Dooley and Marta Heflin are caught in a rainstorm. Everything is layered and distorted and it’s impossible to tell what’s going on and it’s just perfect, with that technique he never abandoned. This scene, though the high point of the film, managed to keep my interest for the next hour or so via the hope that there would be something equally dense. Sadly, there wasn’t. This is a musical, based around an awful production called “Keeping ‘Em Off the Streets,” a plotless theatre performance put together by a bunch of out of work rockers, led by the guy who played J.C. in Jesus Christ Superstar (the movie version, not the superior stage version with the dude from Deep Purple).

So I’m tolerant of this, at least for the first 75%, cause I’m thrilled to see Paul Dooley play a romantic lead, and this Heflin woman who kinda looks like Skeletor is OK too. And Henry Gibson! (more on him below). There’s the typical Altman perversity - the man’s subverted every other genre of film so why not attack the romantic comedy too? His method of doing this is simply to cast Paul Dooley as a romantic lead; it’s the mark of Altman Perversion that I see in even his most dire films. This is slightly younger Paul Dooley of course, meaning mid-40’s Dooley, where he isn’t that jowly yet, but still clearly not supposed to be a romantic lead. This is the days before Judd Apatow, of course.

The DVD featurette is a 20 minute documentary about this film, which is about 15 minutes longer than it needed to be since Altman offered his brief comments at the beginning and the rest is about how great the musical is. See, Altman says that Alan Nichols had written this shitty musical and he wanted to make a film out of it, and Altman wanted to make a romantic comedy where the lead is someone unattractive like Paul Dooley, so he thought “why not?” Except of course Altman doesn’t say the musical is shitty, though it is. And also, he says that he thinks A Perfect Couple stands up against any of the other films he ever made, which it doesn’t.

The thing that I realised the next morning is that Altman probably didn’t write any more of a script than that, and probably didn’t care either. Though this is probably the most commercial film of his I’ve seen - perhaps the most desperately commercial - yet it still has essentially no writing to it. There’s the basic plot, which is two dumpy people meet on a computer dating service, and the Guy lives in a really repressive traditionally Greek household and the Girl is involved in this rock band she doesn’t like, and that’s it. There is no more to it. Nothing interesting even happens, really.

And enter Henry Gibson. He plays some sort of family friend, and he has about four minutes of screen time in the whole film, and he completely fucking nails it in that magical Henry Gibson way that I can’t quite explain but you just have to see it. Honestly, watch this film just for Henry Gibson’s lines, and fast-forward the rest - definitely fast-foward the songs.

The songs are really, really lousy. In the self-fellating documentary one of the producers even admits that they suffer from the ‘trappings of 70’s rock’ (I think that’s how he puts it - it was late, and I’m not going to search for the exact quote just to put in a blog post). But I like 70’s rock - all sorts of it - and this is just terrible. If they sounded like Led Zeppelin or Aerosmith or Fleetwood Mac I could have handled it; instead it’s some sort of watered down soul/rock/pop big band that just SUCKS. And as the film progresses, there’s gradually more and more songs. It reminds me of how I used to watch the James Bond marathons on TBS when I was in high school, and I realised rather quickly what Ted Turner’s commercial programming schedule was - the first commercial break was a full 30 minutes into the film, then the second one came 20 minutes later, then 15 minutes, then down to the regular 8 minutes for the duration of the film. In other words, it draws you in and then exacerbates the torture near the end, when it hurts more. That’s kinda what lying through all those Keeping ‘Em Off the Streets songs felt like.

At one point when it looks like things aren’t gonna work for Paul Dooley and Marta Heflin, he goes on a date with another girl from the computer dating service. And this girl is supposed to be vapid and slutty, and she’s there to teach Paul Dooley that he actually really does care about Marta Heflin, a plot device that’s found in probably every other RomCom ever made. (Furthermore, and this would be a footnote if there was an easy way to do footnotes on blog posts, it’s completely unclear why they fell in love in the first place. They go on one date, and they stand each other up for the second, and then after hitting him with a metal rod and sending him to the hospital she announces her love for him. This absolutely disinterest in the plot is what I was talking about above.) Anyway, the other girl, played by Ann Ryerson also of Caddyshack, looks a bit like Dominique Labourier from Celine and Julie Go Boating. She’s fun and way hotter and of course, there’s that scene where Paul Dooley is gonna bang her but he decides not to - because he makes the Right Choice, and RomComs are all about Love triumphing over Bitterness or whatever. The thing is, this film would have been way better if Dooley actually DOES bang her and then goes home and feels incredibly shitty about it. Maybe so shity that he can't get out of the funk, and isn't able to rekindle things with Marta Heflin, and the film ends on a miserable bleak note. Because that’s what you didn’t see in films then, and maybe you’d see it now in an Apatow film or something edgy and postmodern, but you didn’t see it in 1979 and that’s why it woulda been great. Because guys like Paul Dooley don’t often get to sleep with girls like Caddyshack.

Also - I forgot to mention that there is very little actual “comedy” in this RomCom, but enough that you can tell it’s supposed to be funny - there’s this ongoing thing where they can’t actually have sex with each other (Dooley and Heflin, I’m talking about) because they keep getting interrupted, no privacy, etc. It’s absolutely Buñuelian - yet dull.

However it’s inspired me to finally watch the rest of Altman’s 70s work. I’ve still never made it all the way through Quintet, and that’s a film I’ve been meaning to watch for at least five years (it ain’t easy). I’m really looking for H.E.A.L.T.H., which is a 1980 film that I can’t find anywhere, though hints that it has shown on American TV recently which means someone’s gotta have a tape of it. It was actually co-written by Paul Dooley, who is a brilliant character actor that manages to do the best he can in this. It may not rival his performance as Wimpy in Popeye - I mean, let’s face it, that’s just fucking tight - or the dad from Breaking Away - but he is capable, which is all that matters. If this were made today I’d imagine some nightmare casting like Lewis Black or maybe an African-American targeted remake with the kid who played Urkel or something.

But thankfully this film has been forgotten, except that some company felt it was worthy to release on DVD (to which I am grateful, but suspicious). Was there actually a huge demand for A Perfect Couple to be issued on DVD? I know that even for an indie label you have to press a minimum like, like, 1,000 DVDs; I'm sure these big companies have even larger basic pressings, say, 10,000 copies. Do they actually think there are 10,000 people out there who want to own this on DVD? Or even 1,000? Maybe my sense of demographics is totally screwed up - certainly thousands of people saw it in its original theatrical run, and a few of them maybe loved it in 1979 and will now want to own it in letterboxed digital glory. But how many, really? Is there a way that the manufacturer can actually break even on a film like this? Is it some sort of tax writeoff for them?

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