Review by A.C. Miller
Robert Altman’s quirky 1970 flick, Brewster McCloud, is everything the title is: odd, zany, different, and downright unique. It’s one of those films every viewer should go into without a clue as to what they’re getting into because what you’ll leave with is this profound belief that Altman can’t do anything wrong, or maybe that he’s just as crazy as his characters. Not just because he does exactly what he wants with this movie, but because he keeps the whimsy of the characters and the absurdity of life at the forefront of what he’s trying to say. He never misses an opportunity for a subtle joke, the chance to use karma as a character’s worst enemy, or even a moment to include complete insanity into what’s happening on screen. Just like life itself, Altman and writer, Doran William Cannon, created a film that makes some sense, but ultimately is just a giant mess of all the adjectives one could use to describe what he or she goes through on a daily basis.
However, unlike the film’s protagonist, Brewster McCloud, not everyone’s life has a guardian “angel,” nor does everyone have this unyielding desire to create a device that allows him or her to fly. And I think it’s safe to say not everyone’s life is somewhat narrated by an ornithologist who compares everyone around him or her to a different species of bird. But besides those three things, everyone probably deals with some level of incredulousness that can’t be explained no matter how hard one may try, and in that vain is where Brewster McCloud thrives.
For instance, several snobbish characters whose on-screen presence is mirrored by that very personality trait, typically meet death in a ridiculous manner. A manner that can simply be put as: shit on by birds—courtesy of Brewster’s guardian “angel” played by Sally Kellerman. Also, “angel” remains in quotes because Louise (Kellerman) is never stated as being one, but she has visible scars on her back where wings once were. Also, she has a red purse, red car, a raven, and is always there when karma locks down on someone who’s out of line. So, really, Louise is more of a dark angel than anything, but once again she’s never shown as doing anything ethereal, nor does she ever state that she fell from the sky or climbed out from the ashes. She’s really just this bad ass who helps Brewster in his quest to create a flying machine that replicates how birds fly.
And in that quest lies the plot. Though, really, there might not even be one. After all, in his review, Roger Ebert said, “. . .if you want me to explain what Brewster McCloud is about, I’m not sure it’s about anything.” Ultimately, it feels like it’s about the general aloofness of life, but at the same time it still centers on Brewster’s goal of building this flying machine because. . .well, who doesn’t want to fly away from their problems?
It appears, however, that Brewster doesn’t really have any problems since Louise takes care of anyone and everything that gets in his way. Whether it be a detective who threatens to have him arrested because Brewster won’t give him his new fancy camera, or an old racist man that threatens to shoot Brewster because he let his wheelchair go down a ramp while he was still in it. Whatever problem arises, Louise is there to help because, in life, sometimes you just need a little extra boost to push everyone down (in this case, have an angel kill them) to get to the top (in this scenario, the clouds). Then, when you get there, shun away who got you there, and be prepared for everything to go awry.
It’s that combination of obliviousness and dumb luck that make Brewster McCloud a rare film that honestly, might not have a real narrative, but instead just has an amalgamation of scenes that make for a wild ride; a ride that I would definitely recommend to those seeking something out of the ordinary.
If you want to hop on the back of this non-stop comedic fantasy and see the Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton) play a crude, unfiltered old lady, then Warner Archive has just the Blu-ray for you. Replete with a high definition version of this Altman cult classic and the original theatrical trailer, this version gives fans exactly what they may not know they needed. You can also stream it here.