Alex (Paul Dooley) and Sheila (Marta Heflin) have met through a dating service and this is their first night out together - Sheila is beginning to think it should be their last as well. He has invited her out to hear the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra play an outdoor concert, which features his sister (Belita Moreno) as one of the cellists, but just as they are settling down they notice a stiff breeze picking up and Sheila wonders aloud whether it's going to rain. Alex dismisses her fears, and at that moment a thunderstorm begins, leaving them scurrying for his car under one flimsy umbrella, but to make matters worse once they get inside the sunroof refuses to close...
What a terrible first date, and that was a neat setting up of the story where director Robert Altman's desire was to create a romantic comedy which didn't feature some glamorous movie stars pretending to be ordinary people but did have a pair of all-too clumsy and authentic folks who would stumble their way towards some kind of happiness. To contrast, whenever Alex and Sheila are out we see another couple who are far more sophisticated who appear to be having an ideal time with one another, and right up until the final scene we wonder if they are in fact the perfect couple rather than the awkward duo we see most of.
Although that does lead to a punchline which is incorporated into the end credits if you pay attention. Before that, watching Alex's desperate efforts to chat up Sheila seems like a comedy of discomfort and embarrassment much like Altman's then-recent A Wedding, which the portly Dooley and stick-thin Heflin had also appeared in. But when things turn serious, which they do after a fashion, we're not being tested to see how much we are supposed to be laughing at the characters, as the tone does an interesting thing where you see the depth of pain behind what could have been comic personalities. Alex is labouring under the yoke of his overbearing family, having been forced to move back in with them since his divorce.
That he also works for his strict to the point of insanity father (Titos Vandis) in the antiques trade doesn't improve matters, so when he thinks he has a chance for some peace of mind with the quiet, thoughtful Sheila he is determined not to let her go, leading to such uncomfortable sequences as the one where he stays outside her home all night in his car, asleep, believing she had consented to another date when she was actually out working with her band. Not that she's any happier doing that, as she also craves independence and living communally with her fellow musicians is just not agreeing with her, especially when the leader Teddy (Ted Neeley, Jesus Christ Superstar himself) is such a bully.
So the melancholy-looking Sheila could do with cheering up, and both she and Alex could do with love in their lives, but each feels responsible to those they live with, for work and support. In the same way Nashville was, A Perfect Couple is a music-based movie as the Neeley band was real, called Keepin' Em Off the Streets, assembled by Allan F. Nicholls and performed a bunch of what would be termed a slightly jazzy Californian AOR in concerts dropped in every so often to break up the action, including Heflin's singing. These tunes appear to be a sticking point for many of those few who have seen this (it was one of Altman's run of flops in the late seventies), and it seems there are more audiences who have problems with what Altman was doing with the romcom format than embraced it, which naturally is how cult movies are made. What could be troublesome for many when we are asked to sympathise with what would ordinarily be objects of lampooning in many other comedies is more attractive for those who prefer their less obvious entertainments.
Maverick director responsible for some of the most distinctive American films of the last 35 years. After serving in the military during the 1940s, Altman learnt his filmmaking craft by making advertisements and training films before breaking into TV, where he worked throughout the sixties. Altman's breakthrough feature was MASH in 1970, an acerbic Oscar-winning Korean war comedy that introduced his chaotic, overlapping narrative style. Throughout the seventies, Altman turned in a series of acclaimed films including Images, Brewster McCloud, California Split, The Long Goodbye, the western McCabe & Mrs Miller and the brilliant musical drama Nashville. The 1980s proved to be less successful, as Altman struggled in a decade of slick blockbusters to raise funds for his idiosyncratic movies; nevertheless, the likes of Popeye, Fool for Love and Vincent & Theo were all flawed but interesting work.
Altman returned to the A-list of directors with 1992's cameo-laden Hollywood satire The Player, which was followed by the superb ensemble drama Short Cuts, based on the stories of Raymond Carver. Since then until his death Altman turned in almost a film a year, which ranged from the great (Gosford Park, The Company) to the less impressive (Dr T & The Women, The Gingerbread Man), but always intelligent and unusual. At over 80, Altman remained an outspoken anti-Hollywood figure who showed no sign of slowing down right until the end, with his last film A Prairie Home Companion released in 2006.