Gosford Park
dir. Robert Altman
Opens Fri Jan 4 at various theaters.

Robert Altman treats his actors like gnats. He throws them in front of the camera and forces them to buzz about, to talk over each other, to laugh, buy clothes, eat, drink, suffer nervous breakdowns. He also creates a space or structure into which his gnats are thrown: In Nashville it's an airport; in The Player it's the lot of a film studio; in Dr T & the Women it's a mall; and in his latest film, Gosford Park, it's an English manor.

However, Gosford Park is a bit different from the other films, because the chaos never really cools. The 30 actors in Gosford Park never leave the manor in the way the 24 actors in Nashville finally leave the airport and proceed to the highway and their respective narratives. Gosford Park starts with the key actors arriving, in fancy automobiles, at the manor. Once everyone is inside and has been welcomed and introduced, the buzzing starts: They cook up a storm, eat at big tables, drink scotch, share secrets, play music, whisper in the halls, fuck in the pantry. All of this furious activity is sustained to the very end of the movie, when everyone leaves the story in the same fancy automobiles that delivered them.

Set in 1932, Gosford Park is an exhausted murder mystery. It takes a toxic narrative, the sort that was exploited to death by Agatha Christie, and emphasizes things Christie wouldn't emphasize (like class antagonisms, power structures within sexual relationships), and de-emphasizes things like murder, mystery, and solution. In a word, Gosford Park is a meta-mystery; the setting, figures, and tropes of a murder mystery form the frame for the real concerns: class and gender rivalries, the rise of mass entertainment, and the dark history of the industrial revolution and British imperialism.

In Gosford Park, all of these meta-elements seem to be rushing toward the point of revelation, but they never arrive at the terminal point of truth.

This failure of arrival, however, does not make the film a total failure. Like all of Altman's films since Kansas City, Gosford Park is entertaining not because Altman is improving, but for the very opposite reason: He is becoming lazy. This laziness blurs the edges of his grand cinematic missions and produces an erotic warmth. This laziness has made Robert Altman a better filmmaker.

Remove this laziness and what you have left are impressive expectations. The scale of Altman's worldview is impressive, but his dazzling clusters of actors, voices, social comments, and references never yield a commensurate conclusion. When he is not lazy, we are exposed to the fact of his failure. In Gosford Park, that failure is its own reward.