A tiresome ensemble piece blending conspiracies, politics, romance, and satire through the mechanism of interconnected storylines and a kaleidescopic soundtrack, Robert Altman’s HealtH comes across as Nashville Lite. At best, HealtH is a goofy comedy using the intrigue at a health-food convention as a means of spoofing the corruption of modern American politics. At worst, HealtH is a pretentious trifle from an overrated director repeating old tricks. It’s interesting that HealtH was released in 1980, because the film’s artistic and commercial failure neatly bookends the chapter in Altman’s career that began with the success of M*A*S*H exactly one decade earlier. Over the course of the ’70s, Altman made a number of fine films and just as many bad ones, cementing his reputation as an iconoclast who put together wonderful casts by offering the promise of loose work environments and unconventional material. Yet by the time Altman derailed with the twin 1980 misfires of HealtH and Popeye, his first run as a commercial director was over. It wouldn’t be until 1992’s The Player that Altman was able to assemble a cast as impressive as the one he gathered for HealtH.
Set at a hotel in Florida, HealtH observes a convention at which the officers of a massive health-food organization gather to elect their new president. The leading candidates are Esther Brill (Lauren Bacall), a pontificating 83-year-old virgin with narcolepsy; Isabelle Garnell (Glenda Jackson), an insufferable progressive who recites old Adlai Stevenson speeches whether or not anyone’s listening; Gloria Burbank (Carol Burnett), a neurotic political operative with White House connections; and Dr. Gil Gainey (Paul Dooley), a vitamin salesman using his “campaign” as a publicity stunt to hype his products. Also involved in the election are Gloria’s ex-husband, Harry Wolff (James Garner); dirty-tricks specialist Bobby Hammer (Henry Gibson); crazed cowboy Colonel Cody (Donald Moffatt); and real-life talk-show host Dick Cavett, who plays himself.
The mosaic structure of the picture showcases bizarre behavior in a casual style. One gets the sense of Altman and his collaborators indulging their shared sense of humor, so the resulting film feels like a compendium of in-jokes. The actors are all so skilled that some of the gags almost connect, but the overall vibe is quite tiresome. Altman adds virtually nothing to the statements about democratic elections that he made in Nashville, and he seems disinterested in health-food culture beyond making a few judgmental digs. Not surprisingly, HealtH never found a major audience. Altman made the film as part of a multipicture deal with Fox, delivering his third dud in a row after A Perfect Couple and Quintet (both 1979), so Fox initially balked at releasing HealtH. Altman snuck the film into a few theaters during 1980, and the studio released the picture properly in 1982, when it tanked.