Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (January 7, 2019)
After 1970’s M*A*S*H brought him acclaim and success, director Robert Altman returned almost immediately with the same year’s Brewster McCloud. Instead of the former film’s satirical take on wartime, though, McCloud concentrates on an unusual young man’s life in Houston.
Brewster McCloud (Bud Cort) lives in a fallout shelter underneath the Astrodome. Unsurprisingly, he does so without permission, so he needs to remain hidden.
In this unusual lair, Brewster works to develop powered wings to allow him to fly. Along the way, he needs to avoid the local cops, as they put him in a roster of suspects as the “Houston Strangler”.
Going into Brewster, I needed to overcome two potential obstacles. For one, I can’t claim to love the overall catalog generated by Altman.
Not that I find no merit in his work, of course. I know he boasted talent and created some cinematic innovations, but I find his filmography to walk the spotty side of the street.
This meant that I liked movies like M*A*S*H and 2001’s Gosford Park. However, I never warmed up to Nashville, and later flicks like The Player and Short Cuts did little for me.
Strike Two comes from the casting of Cort, mainly because Brewster comes from the same era as 1971’s “classic” Harold and Maude. That one lands high on the list of well-regarded movies that I actively loathe, and Cort’s cloying performance acted as one of many irritants it brought.
Despite these pre-existing concerns, I wanted to give Brewster a look. I don’t know 1970s Altman as well as I’d like, and I feel I shouldn’t judge Cort too harshly based on just that one role, no matter how much I hated Maude.
Sometimes preconceptions prove correct. That became the case with the borderline unwatchable mess called Brewster McCloud.
From start to finish, Altman wants us to know how clever he is. He’s so clever that he uses a silly, contrived bird motif throughout the movie to illustrate the characters and situations.
Not only does Clever Robert shove this ridiculous conceit on us, but also he makes matters more explicit through the movie’s narrator, an ornithology professor (Rene Auberjonois). This lecturer details the bird species that fit various scenes, all while he acts like a bird.
My – isn’t that clever?
And it continues from there. Brewster ensures that all the homicide victims are truly awful people, and Margaret Hamilton plays one of them. Clever Robert knows we’ll recognize her from The Wizard of Oz, so when she dies, Hamilton’s character wears ruby slippers while “Over the Rainbow” plays in the background.
My, isn’t that clever?
I could go on and on with the self-satisfied sense of pseudo cleverness seen in Brewster, but the basic notion exhausts me. So much of this film consists of Altman’s contrivances that I can’t get through all of them.
Like Maude, Brewster boasts a very “period” notion of the establishment, so we get authority figures who tend to be stupid, bigoted or both. Actually, Brewster doesn’t delve into the hippie ethos quite as strongly as Maude, but it comes close.
Take Brewster’s eventual girlfriend Suzanne (Shelley Duvall), for instance. The two meet when Brewster attempts to steal her car – and hey, she’s cool with that, man! Whatever gets you through the night, far out, and all that!
Reports indicate that Altman hated the original script and only used its basic story. This means he essentially made it up as he went along, and it shows, as the film seems half-baked and borderline incoherent.
I do prefer Brewster to Maude, as the movie occasionally musters a few amusing bits. However, too much of the film seems contrived and pointless.
Footnote: was Brewster the inspiration for the title character in the Where’s Waldo? books? He doesn’t wear Waldo’s knit hat, but Brewster sports nearly identical glasses and shirts, and both Waldo and Cort share similar hair and physiques. The two seem too much alike for coincidence.