Despite his status as a kind of protégé of Robert Altman, I have to admit that I very rarely like the films of Alan Rudolph. In fact, most of the time Rudolph strikes me as just the man to go to if you want all the life sucked out of a subject (see Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle). The Moderns (1988), however, is a fairly happy exception to that rule. The film is a casually absurd, surprisingly playful look into the lives of American expatriates—Gertrude Stein’s (played in the film by Elsa Raven) famous “lost generation”—in post-World War I Paris. To the degree that the film centers on any one thing, it focuses on American painter Nick Hart (Keith Carradine) and his inability to get a career going, or get over his not exactly ex-wife, Rachel (Linda Firoentino). In turn, Rachel is not quite legally married to an unscrupulous and not too well-wrapped millionaire, Bertram Stone (John Lone), who would like nothing better than to outdo his mentor, Harry Houdini. (I said it was casually absurd.)
There’s a good deal of flummery involving art forgery, a variety of double-crosses and a fantasticated faked death, but the essence of the film lies in its picture of the era and the characters who inhabited it. In this regard, the film takes pretty implausible license. Does anyone really think that someone overheard Hemingway (Kevin J. O’Connor) refer to Paris as “a portable picnic,” and suggested that he work on that thought so that it would transform into A Moveable Feast? How about the idea that a morose newspaper columnist (Wallace Shawn) bemoaning his lot in life would remark, “If it wasn’t for me, people would think ‘surreal’ was a breakfast food”? Yet this—and the film’s clever meditations on the nature of art—is exactly the sort of thing that makes The Moderns an entertaining oddity.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke