Robin Williams once said that “nobody liked Popeye,” speaking of the Robert Altman film in which he starred. Well, he was wrong. Three generations of my family loved it. Featuring Altman’s trademark huge cast, it was a musical for its time—1980—dark yet hopeful. Altman had a talent for films that reflected the times in which they were made, regardless of subject matter or the times in which they were set.
M*A*S*H, 1969, was a precedent-setting antiwar film that is as relevant today as it was when it was released during the Vietnam War era. A year after M*A*S*H, Altman gave us Brewster McCloud, another film mixing dark and hopeful, but the mix resulted in a movie that was the antithesis of Popeye. All these titles were light years away from his early work, such as the 1953 documentary How to Run a Filling Station, and the episodes of various programs he directed during television’s “golden age.”
I have fond memories of Brewster McCloud, and for many years wished I would be able to see it again. Learning of its upcoming re-release, I was thrilled and a little apprehensive. When I first saw Brewster McCloud I was young and idealistic, probably more than a little foolish; did it age as well as M*A*S*H? Could it possibly be as entertaining and relevant as I remembered?
Inarguably eccentric, Brewster McCloud is peopled with peculiar characters with nary a normal person on screen. It opens with lecturer Rene Auberjonois speaking about the differences between men and birds, and the desirability that they remain different. Throughout the film, Auberjonois appears, lecturing about some behavior in birds that is pertinent to one of the characters in the story. He speaks directly to the audience, and as the film progresses he appears more and more birdlike.
The eponymous character (Bud Cort) is a young man with a dream. He wants to fly. Not on a plane. In the meantime, he lives in a fallout shelter in the Houston Astrodome and is the object of the attentions of three women, each strange in her own special way, each fulfilling a different need. One feeds him (Jennifer Salt), one romances him (Shelley Duvall), and the third (Sally Kellerman) protects him.
Brewster’s story is complicated by a trail of corpses and massive amounts of bird droppings. Det. Lt. Frank Shaft (Michael Murphy), a celebrity detective brought in from California, attempts to solve the murders with the help of a local police officer (John Schuck). Since this is a Robert Altman movie, there are multiple complications and numerous caricatures. As off-balance as most of them are, the characters have no clue they are anything but normal.
No longer the wide-eyed romantic I was when I first saw Brewster McCloud, I still found it to be enormously entertaining. This time around, I appreciated the irony and cynicism that I missed when I was absorbed by an antihero’s quest for the impossible. This is a film filled with visual jokes, and viewers are warned that if they take their eyes off the screen, they will miss something. However, if you prefer neat story lines and pat endings, keep in mind that there is a reason this movie achieved cult status.
Warner Brothers releases Brewster McCloud on July 13 and it will be available exclusively through the Warner Brothers online shop. The original trailer is included as a bonus feature.
Bottom Line: Would I buy/rent/stream Brewster McCloud? Yes, I’d long been looking forward to seeing it again and was not at all disappointed.