Where do you go when your directorial trademark has become a punchline? Sometime around the release of "Prêt-á-Porter" (1995), it became de rigueur for quick-witted smartmouths like Dennis Miller to remark that any assemblage of more than eight people -- a wedding photo, say -- "looks like the cast of a Robert Altman film."
Touché. But "Gosford Park," a murder mystery set at an English country estate in 1932, finds Altman unrepentant and hurtling onward toward ensemble nirvana. There are "starring" roles for 20 actors in this densely populated comedy/ drama, and supporting parts for 25 more. Watching it is like taking part in a game of Clue in which the roster of colorful suspects has somehow ballooned to encompass every hue of the rainbow. (Professor Mauve? Mrs. Off-White?)
With so many new friends and potential fiends to meet, even the whirlwind introductions we're afforded eat up a good chunk of the movie's 137-minute running time. It takes half the length of a normal film to feel reasonably conversant with the relatives of Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon), who gather at their patriarch's stately home for a hunting party that turns into something far darker. As they jockey for position in Sir William's good graces (read: wallet), these effete snobs are coddled by the servants they have brought along to attend to their every creature comfort.
The much-abused butlers, maids, valets and footmen form a below-stairs society that, as Altman's all-seeing eye reveals, simultaneously suffers and mirrors the prejudices playing out overhead. A third layer of satire is added via the arrival of a milksop Hollywood producer named Morris Weissman (Bob Balaban, who devised the movie's concept with Altman). Clearly out of his element, Weissman is tagged "the funny little American"; his hosts may respect him even less than they do the help.
Save for a few portentous close-ups of bottles of poison, "Gosford Park" operates predominantly as a dry comedy of manners until 90 minutes in, when an actual corpse appears and the mystery plot kicks into gear. It's a strange, even schizophrenic shift, but the all-star conclave of mostly British talent Altman has brought together would be a pleasure to watch no matter what sort of film they found themselves in. Maggie Smith, Helen Mirren, Derek Jacobi, Emily Watson, Richard E. Grant, Clive Owen and Stephen Fry are among the notables in a cast that's a model of consistency and egalitarianism.
If there's a standout performance to be found, though, it's Smith's. Her Countess Constance is a witheringly sarcastic snob whose most stinging put-downs are lobbed under the guise of pleasantry. At one moment of prime patronization, she asks Weissman to recap the plot of the next Charlie Chan picture he intends to produce. He demurs, fearful of spoiling the surprise.
Not to worry, she pooh-poohs: "None of us will ever see it."
See "Gosford Park." It's the sporting thing to do.