Brewster McCloud Review

You have to hand it to a film that sees the lines separating reality from absurdity and then sprints across it madly never to return again. How far that film traverses into the deep unknown of the illogically fantastic remains to be seen (as the film progresses), but if you’re lucky you’ll find a movie like Brewster McCloud that camps out in a satirical world of nonsense and keeps a consistently offbeat tone that helps to illustrate the lesson every weird happenstance in the film revolves about: there are some things mankind wasn’t meant to know or do. The ability to fly has long fascinated mankind, probably stemming as much from jealousy as a sense of wonder. Brewster McCloud is about the compound fascination overcoming every other objective in a teenager's life as he devotes himself entirely to achieving the fanciful flight of birds, a dream that almost appears sane when weighed against the insane goings-on of the world around him.

For film buffs, the start of Brewster is as surreal as the ending. In what may have been the first instance of a studio allowing a film to mess with its traditional bumper (in this case the roar of the MGM Lion), it progresses to a very odd scene of a bandleader bullying his troops in practicing the national anthem in key. Then it just gets weirder. In what will become a check-in of sorts for the film, we’re taken to a very owlish looking man (played by Bud Cort) who begins discussing humanity’s desire to fly and then introduces us to himself as a boy struggling to prepare himself mentally, physically, and mechanically for his dream of building a flying machine. This man, is what Brewster will become. So obsessed with this singular objective is Brewster, that he shrugs off the advances of women in his cage of a room in the Astrodome. He can socialize with people, but the act comes as more of a way to get him back to building his contraption as opposed to meeting them and enjoying their company.

In between scenes with Brewster, an odd plot of a string of murders wherein people keep turning up dead with bird feces on them has the entire city fired up. They call in supercop Shaft (no relation) who wanders from crime scene to crime scene astonished by the ineptitude of those around him, struggling to solve the crimes as no one seems capable of giving him a straight answer. When the events of the film finally come to a head (truly in the final minutes of the film), Brewster races into the Astrodome, ahead of the police pursuing him for a variety of reasons, and risks it all to test out his flying machine.

The following revelation might be a spoiler in another film, but in this case it’s vital to understanding what the film says about the human condition. Just as Icarus’s flight failed from an oversight, as does that of Brewster. He does get to experience the exhilarating joy of flight for a few moments, but then the lack of mental preparation and the realization that the activity is a genuinely frightening and exhausting prospect seeps into his consciousness – in midflight. Brewster, machine and all, comes crashing down to the stadium floor and a circus comes out and parades around seemingly oblivious to the crashed heap of a person lying at their feet. It’s a poignant and unexpected slap in the face, delivered expertly by director Robert Altman, and it forces you to contemplate the limitations of humanity, not from what the species is capable of, but what the species is meant to be capable of. It’s a question inherently structured around a belief in a fate designed by a higher power, but Brewster McCloud suggests that there are definite clues that we can observe hinting us to what we should and shouldn’t invest our time in pursuing. Granted, humanity has long since mastered “flight” with the airplane, but as the older Brewster intones, that’s not flight as we originally observed it. What we do in airplanes is a modified mimicry of what we’ve seen birds do. We control a machine that flies, but we ourselves are not flying.

But maybe that’s okay.

DVD Bonus Features


"Brewster McCloud" is on sale August 4, 2010 and is not rated. Comedy. Directed by Robert Altman. Written by Doran William Cannon. Starring Rene Auberjonois, Sally Kellerman, Bud Cort, Michael Murphy, Shelley Duvall.

Lex Walker • Editor

He's a TV junkie with a penchant for watching the same movie six times in one sitting. If you really want to understand him you need to have grown up on Sgt. Bilko, Alien, Jurassic Park and Five Easy Pieces playing in an infinite loop. Recommend something to him - he'll watch it.


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