The Charles Theatre starts its Robert Altman repertory series with this madcap black comedy that announced his mercurial impishness from the very start of his creative peak. The then-45-year-old director followed up the breakout commercial and critical success of MASH with 1970's Brewster McCloud, a frankly bizarre take on the Icarus allegory wrapped inside a serial killer investigation and, in many ways, a barbed entertainment satire.
Brewster (baby-faced Bud Cort) is a loner who lives in a fallout shelter beneath Houston's Astrodome, working as a chauffeur for the cantankerous, old Abraham Wright (an unidentifiable Stacy Keach), a younger brother to Orville and Wilbur. Brewster is steadily working on a pair of wings for himself--to fly away, naturally. And he's aided, in modest ways, by a young woman who works at a health food store (Jennifer Salt) and the mysterious Louise (a finely subdued Sally Kellerman), a mother figure qua guardian angel, as evidenced by the scars on her back where wings may once have been.
Of course, no Altman movie is so benignly linear, and swirling around Brewster's flight plans are an array of idiosyncratic characters intersecting. A recent string of strangulation murders has caused wealthy city official Haskell Weeks (William Windom) to send for San Francisco's super detective Frank Shaft (Michael Murphy in a role obviously modeled on Steve McQueen's Bullit), whose acute police eye takes note that each victim had been covered in bird excrement. Shaft teams with beat cop Officer Johnson (John Schuck) in an investigation that begins to point toward Brewster, who has taken a shine to Astrodome tour guide Suzanne (a false-eyelash-rocking Shelley Duvall in her screen debut), kindling romantic/sexual feelings in the young man that Louise warns him will lead to his downfall. Throughout, the Lecturer (Rene Auberjonois) delivers naturist observations about birds and birdlife, which becomes voice-over commentary on the story's characters, events, and relationships.
None of the above comes close to conveying the sheer lunacy of the movie's spirit. If MASH was anarchic, Brewster is more so, if only because so much of Altman's tangential jokes, satirical banalities, visual meanderings, and self-referential asides take place not in the self-contained genre of a war movie gone berserk, but in something far more ordinary: a quasi-conventional crime movie set in the present that dryly pokes a bit of fun at then-recent entertainments (Bullit and those late-'60s movies that tried to bottle and/or skewer flower-power counterculture such as Lord Love a Duck and Skidoo) and which ends up feeling all the more surreal because of its allusive nature.
All the eventual Altman hallmarks are here--the sprawling cast, the concatenating stories, the long-lens shots and patient camera--including the surreptitious curveball ending. Brewster McCloud, though, achieves one of his most existentially devastating closings outside Nashville with a coda that straddles the absurd and the tragic. The movie doesn't have much to say, but it finds an emotional kernel that's hard to shake. This movie isn't available on DVD, so this series presents a far-too infrequent opportunity to see a print of this now cult title.