Garner, Bacall and Ann Tyerson trying to be wittyRobert Altman was already something of a Hollywood veteran when he made his breakthrough film, "M*A*S*H" (1970), at age 45. As rebellious as the young audience to which it appealed, "M*A*S*H" restlessly defined the New Hollywood of its time, and with both that film and the one that followed, "Brewster McCloud" (1970), Altman perfected an improvistory style driven by a lot of rapid, energetic, overlapping verbal outpouring.
What he created was a cinematic riff, a cool-jazz style to which he would invariably return during his up-and-down career, arguably hitting something of a peak with "Nashville" (1975).
"Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson," "A Wedding," "Quintet," "The Player," "Short Cuts," "Prêt-à-Porter," "Dr. T and the Women," "Gosford Park," "The Company" and his final film, "A Prairie Home Companion," all followed the same formula and were all over the map in terms of hits, misses and in-betweens.
But the formula turned truly rancid in "H.E.A.L.T.H." (1980), a hugely condescending, painfully unfunny jab at health-food fanatics holed up at a convention. Seeing it again recently on the Fox Movie Channel (on 18 March at 3 p.m.) - apparently, the only place where one can see it these days - I was struck by how much I dislike Altman's taste in actors (his ever-changing "stock company" always left me cold); by his misuse of his occasional celebrity players (in this case, Lauren Bacall, Glenda Jackson, James Garner and Carol Burnett) and by how self-conscious, obvious and shrill Altman could be when attempting decidedly "odd" touches.
Case in point: The wildly annoying strolling singers in "H.E.A.L.T.H." who warble inane numbers while wearing ridiculous "vegetable" costumes.
It was around this time that I started to seriously question my enthusiasm for Altman, a fascination that started in my youth but dwindled as both he and I aged. Towards the end, I found his films as annoying as those singers. Anyway, I realize that Hollywod rarely remakes bad films, but given how health-conscious that present-day society pretends to be, "H.E.A.L.T.H." should be an exception. It's definitely ripe for a revamping. Perhaps Wes Anderson or Alexander Payne could get it right.
Just a suggestion.
"H.E.A.L.T.H." screens again on the Fox Movie Channel 27 April at 4 p.m. The film originally clocked in at 105 minutes, but for some reason, the Fox Channel library print runs 100 minutes.