When he connected with the right material, Robert Altman created distinctive cinematic experiences, allowing viewers to discover new things and to examine familiar things in fresh ways. Conversely, Altman’s engagement with weak material generally resulted in mediocrity, as well as a few artistic disasters. Altman’s two movies from 1979 illustrate this point. The sci-fi saga Quintet is a misfire on nearly every level, whereas the offbeat romantic comedy A Perfect Couple is frustratingly erratic. The basic story is drab, and only Altman would build a romantic movie around character actor Paul Dooely, a middle-aged everyman with a hangdog face. Had Altman kept things simple, A Perfect Couple could have been a charming trifle. Alas, Altman overcompensated for the slight narrative by integrating musical interludes and recurring visual metaphors. That’s why A Perfect Couple sprawls across 110 very long minutes, with as much screen time devoted to concert performances as to dramatic scenes. The balancing act doesn’t work—each of the two major cinematic elements drains energy from the other. Furthermore, Altman’s bold choice of placing a relatively inexperienced actress in the leading female role backfired, because Marta Heflin is a vacant presence who fails to match Dooley’s wonderful comic energy. Even Altman’s usual trope of employing quirky supporting characters for laughs falls flat here, because he introduces a set of eccentric relatives for Dooley’s character, and then barely uses them.
The main storyline begins with an uptight businessman named Alex (Dooley) sharing a calamitous first date with free-spirited Sheila (Heflin). In addition to being many years younger than Alex, Sheila is a featured vocalist in a rock band, so the would-be lovers encounter considerable differences as they try to build a relationship. In Alex’s scenes, Altman accentuates Alex’s preoccupation with his Greek heritage as well as his fraught interactions with judgmental relatives. In Sheila’s scenes, Altman focuses on rock-band dynamics. (Sheila’s group is led by a egotistical womanizer named Teddy, who is played by leather-lunged actor/singer Ted Neeley, of Jesus Christ Superstar fame.) The movie’s central relationship isn’t particularly believable, and both leading characters have unattractive qualities, so it’s hard to care very much about what happens. Altman’s meandering storytelling adds to the general feeling of indifference. Still, some of the tunes are rousing, Dooley scores a few great moments, and every so often Altman locks into a lyrical groove for a few minutes.
A Perfect Couple: FUNKY