`Ready-to-Wear' and `Nobody's Fool' Set Offbeat Pace

Movies big and small are arriving side-by-side as Hollywood continues its blitz of late-year releases, hoping for holiday crowds at the box office plus eligibility for Oscars and other awards.

On the big-picture end of the spectrum, Robert Altman has concocted ``Ready-to-Wear,'' a rambling visit with the international fashion industry. Taking a more modest approach, Robert Benton has made ``Nobody's Fool,'' a return to the finely humanistic spirit that made his ``Places in the Heart'' and ``Kramer vs. Kramer'' so popular.

Among other interesting contrasts between these pictures, Altman's seems dedicated to squeezing as many stars as possible onto the screen, while Benton's strives for intimacy with a much smaller array of talent - most notably Paul Newman, who uses the occasion to offer his best performance in ages.

``Ready-to-Wear'' is hitting the scene amid a massive publicity campaign by Miramax Films and more unfavorable press - from both fashion and movie observers - than any high-profile release in recent memory.

One problem seems to be that the picture is neither conventional enough to satisfy entertainment-seekers nor experimental enough to qualify as a full-fledged art film.

Another problem is that it's directed by Altman, who's been polarizing audiences for 25 years. Most agree that his major films of the 1970s, such as ``MASH'' and ``Nashville,'' are innovative and stimulating, if not always as engaging as more mainstream fare. But his detractors have a long list of botched pictures - including a string of appalling `80s flops - to bolster their anti-Altman arguments. Recent successes like ``The Player'' and ``Short Cuts'' have failed to end this debate.

``Ready-to-Wear'' finds Altman's mannerisms in full swing. Instead of a coherent plot, the film uses a large-scale event - a Paris fashion exhibition attracting designers, models, marketers, and journalists from around the world - as the focus for numerous shaggy-dog stories that intertwine with one another for well over two hours. Characters appear and disappear at the whim of a meandering screenplay and a restless pair of editing scissors. Sometimes they generate great amusement. Other times they make you wonder what in the world they're doing.

Altman has nothing substantial to say about the fashion world, or about the crowd of artisans, capitalists, curiosity seekers, and groupies who populate it. He's clearly more interested in the fun he can have fitting countless bits of behavioral detail into a single mercurial narrative.

He also remains fascinated by certain film techniques that have energized most of his best movies - forming multiple layers of recorded sound into a sort of rolling acoustic wave, for instance, and moving through wide-screen space with a zooming camera instead of relying mainly on shot-to-shot cuts.

What makes ``Ready-to-Wear'' a perversely compelling film is precisely the weirded-out cinematic artistry that lies behind its messy, often pointless mixture of plots, subplots, and digressions. There's no way of defending its many blunders, such as the idiotic frame story that has two French police officers solving a nonmurder that we spectators have known about from the beginning. But there's much to enjoy if you open your eyes and ears to Altman's amazing explorations of sound and image, and join him in savoring the improvisatory acting of the year's most eclectic cast.

While these virtues don't make ``Ready-to-Wear'' a great movie, the film has a wacky originality I find impossible to deny.

`Nobody's Fool'' centers on a hard-luck guy named Sullivan, played by Newman with a wisdom and panache that recall the best work of his career. Blessed with an optimism that's both illogical and unquenchable, Sully lurches from one construction job to another while trying to stay on reasonably good terms with friends and relatives - a former wife, an estranged son, an elderly neighbor, the tempting wife of his hard-boiled boss - who can't figure out why he's still drifting through life after passing his 60th birthday.

The movie's first few scenes are as self-indulgent as Sully himself, more concerned with exploiting small-town atmospherics than spinning an involving yarn. The filmmakers settle into their material soon, however, unfolding the story at a relaxed pace that never forces our involvement with the characters. Instead, it lets us discover their rich, perplexing depths through carefully wrought nuances of dialogue, gesture, and situation.

Newman's sensitive performance gets excellent support from a cast that includes Bruce Willis as Sully's on-and-off boss, Melanie Griffith as his maybe-someday girlfriend, Dylan Walsh as his long-unseen son, Josef Sommer as an entrepreneur with a shady scheme, and the late Jessica Tandy as a landlady who refuses to give up hope in her seemingly incorrigible tenant.

Three cheers also go to cinematographer John Bailey, who gives the modest village of North Bath, N.Y., as magical a glow as you'll see onscreen this season.

* Both films are rated R; they contain nudity, sexual situations, and vulgar language. An interview with Paul Newman will appear in the Dec. 27 Monitor.

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