Brewster McCloud Blu-ray Review: A Weird, Strange Trip into the Altmanverse

After spending a decade or so making industrial films then directing television episodes, Robert Altman finally connected with critics and audiences on a feature film. Released in 1970, M*A*S*H, a satirical account of a medical unit in the Korean War, was a smash hit. It won awards, made big money (and spawned a hugely successful TV series), and put Altman on the map as an exciting filmmaker.

With the success of M*A*S*H, the studios gave Altman a green light to make any film he wanted. He chose the hottest screenplay around, Brewster McCloud, a black comedy about a New York murderer obsessed with flying. Then he changed nearly everything about it but the basic premise, pissing off both screenwriter Doran William Cannon and the studio executives, thus solidifying his reputation as a maverick filmmaker who was loved by actors and hated by the money men. The result is an idiosyncratic, strange little film that is very much the product of the ’70s and oh so very Altmanesque.

There isn’t a plot so much as there are some very oddball, quirky characters doing things. Bud Cort plays the titular Brewster McCloud, an eccentric, reclusive young man living in the bowels of the Houston Astrodome who dreams of flying and is making the wings to do just that. Sally Kellerman plays a mysterious woman who follows Brewster around, gives him advice, possibly commits a series of murders, and might just be a fallen angel. There’s also Shelley Duvall, in her very first film role, as an Astrodome tour guide who becomes Brewster’s love interest and brings his ultimate downfall by having sex with him. Michael Murphy is Frank Shaft, a big-shot detective from San Francisco brought in to solve the murders but becomes annoyed by the overwrought political machinations of Houston and becomes obsessed with the bird droppings that cover all of the victim’s bodies.

All of these characters move in and out of the film at random. The action, including an extended car chase scene that feels like a rough draft of the entirety of Smokey and the Bandit, never seem connected to one another. All of it exists in a film that only Robert Altman could make. Dialogue overlaps, scenes brush up against each other and suggest similarities where there might not be similarities, absurdity rules while reality sleeps. Etc, and so on. Altman was rarely interested in story but always exuded a particular mood, and it’s quite amazing he was able to create his signature style so early in his cinematic career.

Is Brewster McCloud a good movie? A bad one? I don’t think I or anyone really could say. It is a strange film, funny, at times moving, often baffling, and made by a master filmmaker honing his craft. I can say that I’m glad it exists. I’m thrilled that I got to see it. I’ll probably never watch it again, and I’m so very happy the Warner Archive has brought it to Blu-ray. If you are a fan of Altman, ’70s cinema, or oddball movies, then I do totally recommend it.

This is a bare-bones release with nothing but a trailer to accompany it. Warner Archive isn’t saying much about the transfer other than its a new master. It does look good. Its color palette is intentionally dull, but it comes through clean and clear and I didn’t notice any debris or damage. Audio is likewise nice with John Phillips’ folky songs coming in loud and clear through all channels and the (overlapping) dialogue is easily understood.

For good and for bad, Brewster McCloud is Altman using all of his cinematic staples. It’s a decidedly weird film that just sort of rambles along, but the performances are strong, and if you like Altman, then you definitely want to watch this.

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Mat Brewster

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