The Tech - Online EditionMIT's oldest and largest
newspaper & the first
newspaper published
on the web
Boston Weather: 81.0°F | Mostly Cloudy

Altman lacks vision but has fun in Ready to Wear

Julia Roberts and Tim Robbins cover a Parisian fashion show from their hotel room in Ready to Wear.

Ready to Wear (Pret-a-Porter)

Directed by Robert Altman.

Written by Robert Altman and Barbara Shulgasser.

Starring Marcello Mastrioanni, Sophia Loren, Anouk Aime, Julia Roberts, Tim Robbins, Kim Basinger, and many others.

Sony Copley Place.

By Scott Deskin
Arts Editor

Take equal parts French farce, murder mystery, and fashion-show chic; assemble an international cast with no fewer than 31 characters; and mix well under the watchful, ambitious eye of director Robert Altman. The result is Ready to Wear (formerly known as "Prt--Porter"), an enjoyable and haphazard comedy about the lives and loves of fashion designers, supermodels, and even journalists during the coverage of an annual springtime fashion show in Paris. True to form, Altman isn't concerned about the rather petty lives and concerns of these characters, but is focused rather on the situations they create.

The main delight for viewers is the spectacle of the fashion shows themselves, which most people never get to see: Altman wisely chose to roll his cameras on the real thing, capturing last year's spring collections and a host of real-life celebrities on celluloid. With this stock footage as a picaresque canvas, Altman and co-writer Barbara Shulgasser integrate several different storylines behind the scenes.

When the head of the fashion council , Olivier de la Fontaine (Jean-Pierre Cassel) is found dead in his limousine, public and private lives are thrown into gleeful turmoil. Olivier's widow (Sophia Loren) is soon accosted by an old lover (Marcello Mastrioanni), who happens to be a suspect in Olivier's apparent murder. Olivier's lover (Anouk Aime), a leading fashion designer, contends with her rebellious son and a corporate takeover by a Texas bootmaker (Lyle Lovett).

Meanwhile, Altman entreats us to see how the media covers (or overexposes) the fashion show. A ubiquitous FAD-TV reporter Kitty Potter (Kim Basinger) tries to get fluffy sound bites from celebrities and designers surrounding the events. Three fashion magazine editors (Linda Hunt, Sally Kelllerman, and Tracey Ullman) covet the same sadistic, voyeuristic photographer (Stephen Rea). And two American reporters (Tim Robbins and Julia Roberts), stranded in the same hotel room without proper clothes, have a cute little fling. Except for the last storyline, most characters seem downright hostile toward their enemies, a quality that causes the collective downfall (or humiliation) of most characters by the end of the film.

Some may find Altman's style too caustic to be enjoyable. Time magazine's Richard Corliss (in a negative review), deems the film "a hate letter to the fashion industry." Altman's previous efforts in satirizing the military in M*A*S*H (1970), the music industry in Nashville (1975), and the movie industry in The Player (1992) cut deeper than in Ready to Wear.

But the attack on Altman isn't entirely warranted: On a superficial level, the movie is funny and enjoyable, and Altman lets himself goof off a bit. Other critics have groused about some actors having to reprise actions in the roles that they've done in the past, but it's just Altman's way of acknowledging his actors' collective status as "icons" rather than a cruel play on the actors' (and viewers') memory.

After last year's superlative Short Cuts, which I feel was unfairly shunned at the Oscar ceremony, probably because the Academy was still feeling the sting of The Player), Ready to Wear is an inferior effort. The climax of the film seems forced, and hardly any of the characters' predicaments are resolved. But if you're an Altman fan or a slave to fashion, Ready to Wear is an agreeable way to pass a couple of hours. For raw entertainment value, it probably beats Dumb and Dumber.